Seattle: Kyoto Cool

The Bush Administration may have rejected the Kyoto treaty on global warming, but the city of Seattle plans to exceed the Kyoto targets.

While President Bush has backed out of the Kyoto climate change pact, Seattle is ratifying it in the most powerful way possible—by surpassing its goals.


Seattle is one of more than 100 cities in the US and 400 cities worldwide that are adopting local climate action plans as part of a Cities for Climate Protection program. Seattle's locally controlled public utility, City Light, has built a largely renewable energy system and invested steadily in efficiency measures that squeeze more work out of existing supply.

On Earth Day 2000, City Light committed to meeting all our new power needs with zero-net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. To meet growing demand, we rely exclusively on energy efficiency and renewable resources such as wind. When we do use fossil fuels, we offset equivalent GHG emissions by, for example, offering incentives to reduce car trips.

This zero-climate-impact strategy is saving Seattle consumers a bundle on their energy bills. Our energy efficiency investments alone saved Seattlites roughly $1 million per day over the last several months of power market turmoil, with no reduction in the quantity or quality of energy service. And Seattle's clean energy strategy is helping to seed a whole new crop of clean energy enterprises, positioning the region for a technology revolution that could easily rival the software and biotech industries as the global market for carbon-free energy sources mushrooms.

Our zero-net GHG emissions electricity is probably the best climate solution Seattle has to offer. But transportation is the bigger problem. The city is working toward compact development, more efficient use of existing roads and buses, transit expansion, trip reduction, and even “location-efficient mortgages,” which recognize that housing is more affordable if it's located to minimize the need for cars.

To further reduce transportation-related GHG emissions, we need clean cars. Seattle can't control vehicle technology the way we control our electricity, but we can mobilize buying power to help move the market. The city is developing a plan to include hybrid gas/electric vehicles, natural gas, and biodiesel vehicles in the city's fleet. We are also “rightsizing” our fleet use so we don't drive trucks when a Toyota Prius will do.

Seattle's incredibly successful waste reduction and recycling efforts reduce GHGs coming and going: less waste means reduced emissions from manufacturing at the front end and from landfills at the back end. The city's Green Buildings program encourages efficient use of energy and materials. Our Climate Wise program helps businesses reduce their GHG emissions. Our urban forestry and watershed-protection programs store carbon in the city's trees.

We're just starting to tally the effects of these local initiatives on our GHG “footprint,” and the preliminary results are a refreshing surprise. From what we know so far, Seattle is on track to reduce GHGs by between two and three times the amount called for in the Kyoto Protocol.

So what is Seattle trying to prove? That we're a hotbed of what Vice President Cheney calls “private virtue”? That responding to climate change is costly and painful, but Seattlites will do it anyway because we're so righteous? Of course, the point is just the opposite. We're helping to protect the climate for fun and profit, as Amory Lovins says. We are sailing past the Kyoto targets just by doing good for the community.

Here is the list of Seattle's most pressing challenges:

  • Reduce energy costs and price volatility
  • Improve mobility
  • Reduce and recycle solid waste
  • Make housing more affordable
  • Protect local air quality
  • Protect urban and rural forests and salmon

These are all top local priorities. But they are also the best things we can do locally to protect the global climate. Thinking globally isn't a distraction from
local priorities. On the contrary, Seattle is finding that protecting the global climate is one of the best ways to make our city a better place to live, work, and play.

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