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Seattle Shows Cities the Way to Carbon Neutrality

The Seattle City Council decided to become carbon neutral by 2050. To get there, they'll need to cut car use in half — just for starters.

Correction appended.

A little more than a year ago, the Seattle city council decided to make the city carbon-neutral by 2050. Few other cities in the world have committed to such an ambitious plan, and those that have, like Melbourne and Copenhagen, will rely heavily on purchasing carbon offsets, which Seattle will not do. With 40 years to bring its net emissions down to zero, the city hired a consulting group to draft a preliminary plan (via Think Progress) that lays out a road map for how major cities can reach carbon-neutral status.

There are bunch of caveats here, because erasing a city’s entire carbon impact is tough work. Seattle has a head start compared to cities like Melbourne because it already sources its electricity from a renewable source—a city-owned hydroelectric project. And Seattle's plan focuses on carbon emissions that the city government has a reasonable chance of influencing, thus excluding emissions associated with consumer goods manufactured elsewhere and some produced by the city's port and cement industry. Even so, the city can only reduce its 2008 emissions by 90 percent: the rest would have to come from less perfect solutions like carbon offsets.

But none of that should take away from what Seattle is aiming to accomplish: those “core” emissions total 4.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Most of that is the product of getting people from place to place: about 70 percent comes from fuel and diesel use, with the rest coming from buildings' energy use.

Figuring out how to decrease emissions in those sectors is a crucial part of the job for any city looking to go carbon-neutral. Alex Steffen, who writes about sustainable cities and co-founded WorldChanging, argued in a recent TED talk that stopping climate change requires more than switching to clean energy because the world may not be able to build enough clean energy capacity to fill our growing needs. His solution is to make cities more dense and to decrease people’s dependence on cars.

Seattle's plan suggests cities should rely on the same idea to slash its emissions. To reach the goal, Seattleites would their cut car use in half. The percentage of miles residents travel by public transit would skyrocket from 8 percent to 25 percent. The city would build out bike infrastructure and make driving more expensive by increasing parking prices, using insurance plans that reward driving fewer miles, and instituting policies like congestion pricing. The cars that people do drive would be electric. (Seattle’s hydroelectric power grid comes into play again in this scenario: electricity savings in other areas would free up enough of the city's hydroelectric capacity to power an electric vehicle fleet without bringing more power sources online.)

And, of course, the city’s buildings would become energy-efficient. Within two decades, all new buildings built would be “built to deep efficiency design levels,” with the best available insulation and building shell materials and state-of-the-art heating, ventilation, and cooling systems. By 2050, 90 percent of existing buildings would be upgraded to these same standards.

These ideas aren’t revolutionary. Seattle’s decision to implement them at this scale is. But every city in the country should be pushing to make as many of these sort of changes as possible, even if it means reducing emissions by half instead of zeroing them out.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to "the city's draft plan." In fact, the preliminary plan was created by outside consultants hired by Seattle's sustainability office.

Photo (cc) via flickr user lempel_ziv

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