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A Carbon Neutrality Reality Check For Seattle
In February, the Seattle City Council announced that pursuing the highly aggressive goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 would be one of their top priorities for 2010. To begin to understand the magnitude of that challenge and assess Seattle's prospects for success, it's helpful to look at other cities, as in the chart below that shows per capita annual emissions:
Unlike the above data, Seattle's greenhouse gas inventory includes aviation and marine emissions, and subtracting those components yields annual per capita carbon emissions for Seattle of 9.0 tons. Based on this metric alone, Seattle rates well compared to other North American cities. But understanding why that is and how Seattle can do better requires digging deeper into the numbers.
Of all the sources of greenhouse gas emissions, buildings and ground transportation are the two components on which public policy can have the greatest impact, and they also represent the lion's share of total emissions. The table below shows data from four cities, including Seattle:
Vancouver, BC, is the lowest emitter of the bunch, and claims to have the smallest carbon footprint of any North American city. (For reference, Copenhagen reportedly emits 4.8 tons per capita, but detailed data isn't available.) And the reason Vancouver comes out on top is that both transportation and building emissions are relatively low, as you can see in the table.
New York City does well with transportation, but not so well with buildings, because their electricity is largely based on fossil fuels. In Seattle, that equation's reversed, because we drive a lot more and our electricity is nearly carbon-free. And Portland gets hit in both categories---even though Portland has made progress reducing car dependence, that progress has not yet made a significant impact on transportation emissions; and nearly half of Portland's electricity is generated by fossil fuels.
The upshot for Seattle out of all this is that transportation must be the focus of any serious plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (not that this is news). And the most effective, long-term solution for efficient urban transportation is the synergistic combination of density and transit. No need to theorize, because there are working models in cities all over the world, and shown below is yet another example of supporting data illustrating the relationship between transportation emissions and density:
But here's where the story starts to get a little embarrassing for Seattle. Because while the relationships between sustainability, land use, and transportation have been recognized for decades, Seattle still struggles to enact policy that would lead to the kind of progress we need to make if we hope to get even anywhere near the goal of carbon neutrality.
In just the latest example of this timidity, the chair of the Seattle City Council's transportation committee said that a proposal to give Nickerson Street a "road diet" gave him indigestion. Guess he didn't get the memo about how Seattle policy makers have been touting Copenhagen as a model of sustainability for years, and that Copenhagen's strategy has long been focused on incremental changes such as road diets and reducing parking. Is it just too much to expect that the chair of the transportation committee would have any kind of vision for the future of transportation in Seattle?
There are many more examples in this strange city of ours. Mayor McGinn's Walk-Bike-Ride initiative---which is all about exactly what we need to be doing to address transportation---received a cool response at best from all but one of the City's Council members. Do you skeptical council members have better ideas? Let's hear them, please.
And let's not forget the Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plans that thecity had the foresight to write, but so far has failed to fund.
And then there's Seattle's Urban Forest Management Plan, which reinforces the specious argument that dense redevelopment causes sprawl because we may lose some trees. And all the hand-wringing over something so benign as backyard cottages.
Meanwhile, the City Council---again with one notable exception---steadfastly supports two multi-billion-dollar freeway projects: the deep-bore tunnel and the 520 bridge. Note to City Council: Vancouver, the city with the smallest carbon footprint in North America, has no freeways running through it. Hmm, could there be some connection?
The public, which often seems to be ahead of the politicians on these issues, voted in 2008 to tax themselves to fund the expansion of Sound Transit light rail. Yet so far Seattle has failed to devote anywhere near the appropriate level of funding for planning and public investment around light-rail stations. The stations in southeast Seattle represent the City's best opportunities to grow in manner that reduces greenhouse gas emissions (as explained in detail here). But they have a long way to go, and the city needs to step up, as Bellevue has, for example.
In the 2009 state legislative session, House Bill 1490 proposed policy to address land use, transportation, and greenhouse gas emissions, including policy directly targeted at high-capacity transit station areas. Futurewise in particular stuck their neck out to advocate for the bill. As soon as things got controversial, Seattle's leaders---both the mayor and the council---left them hanging, and the bill failed. The lack of bold political leadership in Seattle helped to squander a rare opportunity for putting policy in place that would have promoted sustainable development not only in Seattle, but statewide.
As for non-governmental organizations, Seattle also lacks some key players that typically have important transformational roles in other cities. Seattle has no significant urban sustainability policy shop, such as San Francisco's SPUR. Seattle has no development authority such as the Portland Development Commission or the Boston Redevelopment Authority, agencies that have been instrumental in catalyzing the kind of large-scale development needed to transform the the southeast Seattle light rail stations areas into vibrant, transit-oriented communities.
And then there's our regional metropolitan planning organization---the Puget Sound Regional Council---which, as I noted previously, recently proposed a transportation plan that doesn't even come close to achieving the magnitude of transportation emissions reductions already called for by the state, and lacks the vision to even discuss a scenario that might achieve reductions in line with scientific consensus.
And where, might I ask, is the potentially powerful and influential voice of the University of Washington in these policy debates? The near-silence is deafening. I don't get it.
Lastly, I would be remiss to not mention the state's arcane laws that prevent tax-increment financing, and mandate that gasoline taxes must be spent on roads.
So then, am I getting the point across? If Seattle hopes to have the slightest chance of achieving the kind of transformation that will lead to carbon neutrality by 2030 (if ever), then we're going to have to make some massive changes in how things get done around here. Seattle Nice must give way to Seattle Bold.
Really, is it just me, or is there something very peculiar going on here in Seattle? Given the remarkable concentration of big-brained, environmentally-minded people in this city, the disconnect between words and deeds---a.k.a. the sustainability gap---is just plain bizarre.
Is there something in the water? Lack of sunlight?
The first step in getting where you want to go is an honest assessment of where you're starting from. With that in mind, I hope you readers can forgive my relentless negativity and use the information in this post to work for positive change.
- The Trouble With Shaken Baby Syndrome
- Downtown's New Elysian Bar Sounds Pretty Damn Great
- Senator Tom Will Not Run for Reelection
- Flour to the People
- This Week in Restaurant News: Expansions, Cocktails, and Fried Chicken
- Morning Fizz: Brawl Averted, Money Not Diverted
- 30 Perfect Day Trips
- A Critic’s Guide to Seattle Restaurant Week 2014
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