The Seattle City Council took a bold step last January when they made the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 one of their official 2010 priorities. In fact, that target is so aggressive it had some climate change activists scratching their heads over whether is was wise to set the goalpost so high. What has happened since January?

Well, there's a meeting about it tonight—and Cola intern Tiffany Vu wrote a good preview of it here.

Here's my take.

First, some context. In late 2007 Council adopted Ordinance 122610, which states, "To control the impact of climate change globally and locally, the City’s goal is to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other climate-changing greenhouse gases in Seattle to 30% of 1990 levels by 2024, and by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050." Those are the Kyoto Protocol targets, and that 80 percent reduction would require a restructuring of Seattle on a scale beyond most people's imaginations.

Nevertheless, after being prodded by Worldchanging's Alex Steffen last Fall, Council seriously upped the ante to the target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. No other major U.S. city has adopted such a lofty goal. Note though, that when the priority list was officially published the 2030 part had gone missing: "Adopt a carbon neutral goal for Seattle with specific milestones and implementation steps, along with a plan for adaptation to the effects of climate change."

Since then, the City has launched two parallel efforts. First, in July the Office of Sustainability and Environment hired a consultant team led by Stockholm Environment Institute to carry out a six month study that will, "assist the City of Seattle in analyzing projected greenhouse gas emissions, understanding the role of current and potential policies, programs and actions in reducing emissions, and establishing a framework for a future action planning process." (Disclosure: I am serving on the technical advisory committee for this project.)

Second, Councilmember Mike O'Brien spearheaded the recruitment of an army of volunteer experts to form groups and generate ideas on eight subjects that impact climate change: land use, transportation, energy, waste, food systems, neighborhoods, green jobs, and youth. Each group is authoring a white paper and will present their recommendations at a Community Forum on Septemeber 14---tonight!--- at 6pm  in the Bertha Knight Landes room at City Hall. (Disclosure: I coauthored the land use white paper.)

I have no doubt that both of these efforts will produce smart recommendations. What is far less certain, however, is if and when anything will be done with them. Indeed, the remaining question is, now that Council has made a high-profile public commitment to achieving carbon neutrality, will that goal become an embarrassment?

The ball is totally in City Council's court. With all due respect to the volunteers and professionals dedicating their energy to the two efforts noted above, the recommendations are not going to be groundbreaking (though that is not to say there isn't political value in restating them). Pretty much all the key questions have already been answered, and many of the solutions are readily observable on the ground in cities worldwide, as demonstrated in the chart of per capita greenhouse gas emissions on the right. At this very moment, Copenhagen's emissions are less than one third of Seattle's.

Moving towards carbon neutrality is no longer a technical problem.  It is a political problem. The necessary policy actions and redirection of public expenditures will not be trivial, and will not please everyone. But what else should we expect? We are talking about the most severe environmental threat in human history. We may have to ruffle a few feathers to address it. Trouble is, Seattle culture is not known for ruffling feathers. This is a City in which, for example, it took years of Council debate to allow something as benign as backyard cottages.

We can expect that the near term debate will get hung up on the specifics of the goal---net-zero or 80 percent%? 2030 or 2050? But the reality is, take your pick, and the actions we should be taking now are the same. We've already had plenty of time to think about this---we adopted the 80% by 2050 goal nearly three years ago. So then, Seattle City Council, when can we expect to start seeing some leadership and action?