The Seattle City Council hosted a community forum tonight regarding one of their sixteen priorities: making the City of Seattle carbon neutral. Community-based workgroups gave presentations of their findings and recommendations to Council in each of 8 categories: land use, neighborhoods, energy, green careers, transportation, food systems, youth and zero waste. It was an inspiring and thought-provoking event, looking at the issue of carbon neutrality from a wide variety of angles. I am glad to see that a carbon neutral goal has taken off in Seattle, starting from Alex Steffen’s vision at a talk in Seattle last November (viewable here). The environmental community is now abuzz with discussions and initiatives for carbon neutrality. I am particularly encouraged that the City Council has picked up the gauntlet, and is funding technical plans (the Stockholm Environmental Institute is involved) and organizing community groups.
Yet no one has produced a vision of how a carbon neutral city would actually look. Yet no one is grappling (at least out loud) with the very significant policy initiatives and cultural changes required for carbon emissions to go to zero… or with the size of forest the City would need to purchase and forever protect to offset our carbon emissions.
The City commissioned an inventory of the City’s carbon emissions in 2008. How did the recommendations proposed tonight address the largest categories of current emissions in that inventory?
1. Cars and Light Duty Trucks (1.4 million tons): The transportation, land use, youth and neighborhoods proposed policies to make biking, walking and transit the most convenient ways to travel. The land use group recognized that dense neighborhoods reduce the need for travel-miles. No one could estimate a %reduction in carbon emissions by implementing these policies, or describe the infrastructure needed for zero carbon emissions from personal transportation.
2. Trucks (1.2 million tons): Not explicitly addressed by any group, although the food system presentation recommended increasing local food production, which would reduce food being trucked into the city.
3. Sea-Tac Airport (1.1 million tons): The transportation presentation noted that these emissions will need to be addressed eventually (no plan yet).
4. Commercial Buildings (0.9 million tons): The energy presentation was the most visionary of the 8 committees, promoting self-sufficient energy districts and Passivhaus construction. The presenters went beyond carbon neutrality and proposed net clean energy exports. Short on practicalities however. Converting our commercial buildings to Passivhaus standards (is that possible for existing buildings?) and converting all building energy away from natural gas and oil and towards clean electricity can actually lead us to carbon neutrality.
5. Cement production (0.7 million tons): One presentation (I’ve forgotten which) noted the definitional challenges for reducing cement batch plant emissions. If the goal is carbon neutrality within Seattle city limits, regulating the cement plant out will eliminate these emissions within city limits. However, the owner of the plant is likely to ramp up cement production elsewhere, so the emissions have only been displaced, not eliminated.
6. Residential buildings (0.6 million tons): The land use presentation noted that dense living results in lower energy consumption due to shared walls. And the discussion of commercial buildings above applies here: district energy production and passivhaus construction can lead us towards zero.
The City of Seattle has made a great start in even studying carbon neutrality. But we need to move beyond short-term 5% to 10% reductions and map out a feasible plan to reach actual neutrality.
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