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The Carbon-Neutral City

“Seattle becomes one of the first city governments in the world to declare that the goal of being carbon neutral is desirable, realistic, and attainable.”

Gasworks spring by Beth Jusino

On Monday, October 3, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved Resolution 31312, endorsing a path toward reducing Seattle’s net greenhouse gas emissions level to zero by 2050. Section One of the resolution resolves that the “City adopts the following climate protection and adaptation goals:

  1. Seattle will strive to reach net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050; and
  2. Seattle will be prepared for the likely impacts of climate change.”

The Council action sets preliminary emissions targets for Seattle in three sectors: transportation, building energy, and waste. The resolution is the culmination of a year-long process guided by community input and informed by in-depth technical analysis and includes some of the most aggressive emissions targets among cities in the world. A City Council stewardship team developed the resolution in cooperation with the Office of Sustainability and Environment and with the support of Mayor Mike McGinn.

This action is a historic and significant step in our quest to stabilize the Earth’s climate. Seattle becomes one of the first city governments in the world to declare that the goal of being carbon neutral—reducing our net (GHG) emissions to zero—is desirable, realistic, and attainable.

The City Council began the path towards being a ‘climate positive’ city in 2001, when we first adopted the goal of meeting the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol, the internationally negotiated treaty that the United States is the only industrialized nation never to ratify. We have reached that goal of a 7 percent reduction in GHG emissions by 2010. Now the impacts of climate change are increasing, and the Copenhagen Accord of 2009 acknowledged that the world must reduce carbon emissions by more than 80 percent by 2050 if we are to avoid the risks of catastrophic impacts. Net zero emissions is an ambitious but likely necessary goal to set for a city like Seattle in the nation that produces the most GHG emissions per capita.

When we initiated the community dialogue around carbon neutrality in 2010, the City also commissioned the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) to develop scenarios to determine whether net zero emissions was achievable. The SEI report concluded that current technologies and an array of public and community actions could reduce emissions by more than 85 percent. The remainder could be achieved using offsets or sequestration.

We are now ready to take the next steps in developing our forty-year plan, including a set of targets for those areas that the City has the most influence over, and recommendations for areas where we need collaboration and cooperation from the community and other governments.

Highlights of the adopted targets include (see Resolution 31312 for complete table):

Sector
2020 Targets
2030 Targets
Transportation
14% reduction in VMT
20% reduction in VMT
Building energy
8% reduction in energy
20%reduction in energy
Waste Increase waste diversion rate to 69%
Increase waste diversion above 70%
Total GHG emission reduction
30% reduction in GHG
58% reduction in GHG

Reductions are a percentage of 2008 baseline figures. VMT stands for Vehicle Miles Traveled.

The resolution launches the Climate Action Plan update, which will be the next major step in this process. The Office of Sustainability and Environment will engage the community to help identify climate action priorities and will convene technical advisory groups to analyze and recommend specific strategies for reducing the city’s greenhouse emissions in the transportation, building energy and waste sectors. The Climate Action Plan will be our road map for meeting our carbon neutrality goals.

The resolution also outlines a set of additional steps, including:

  • Evaluating potential changes in City regulations and policies, incentives for private action, intergovernmental coordination at the regional, state, and federal level, and public education campaigns;
  • Addressing how offsets and other beneficial City actions can be used to reach climate goals, such as urban and watershed forest management, recycling, and energy conservation and renewable energy resource development that could help position City Light as a climate restoration utility;
  • Identifying how climate protection and adaptation actions can be integrated with City economic development objectives;
  • Developing strategies (including consumption-based GHG reduction strategies) for businesses, households, and individuals to contribute to climate protection through their purchases, participation in the Local Food Action Initiative and other means.

Seattle was recently named the greenest city in North America. Living up to that honor and attaining these ambitious emissions goals will require the engagement of the whole city. This resolution is the starting point for a community dialogue about how the public and the private sectors can work together toward carbon neutrality.


Richard ConlinRichard Conlin wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Richard is president of the Seattle City Council and a YES! Magazine board member.

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