Today I attended a presentation in the Seattle City Council chambers about their goal to be carbon neutral by 2030. A distinguished panel made up of Congressman Jay Inslee, K.C. Golden from Climate Solutions, Alex Steffen from WorldChanging.com, and Jill Simmons from the City’s Office of Sustainability and Environment was joined by almost the entire council (Sally Clark was out sick).
The work on what climate neutrality means has just begun and plans on how to achieve it hasn’t even started, so this discussion was more about why it makes sense for Seattle to take this step. Jay Inslee talked about the importance to our economy to move towards greenhouse gas neutrality. K.C. Golden continued on that theme. Alex Steffen talked about the urbanization of the world, so it’s most important to find sustainable solutions for the cities. Jill Simmons spoke mainly about what the stage is before this new goal: our existing CO2 targets (80% below 1990 by 2050) and what programs we’re undertaking to reduce our emissions (e.g. bike plan, garbage trucks running bio-diesel). Mike O’Brien made a good point that this is about Seattle becoming a laboratory for “scalable, repeatable solutions”.
The audience was very supportive of the goal, but was interested in talking specifics. Questions from the audience included policies on vehicle miles traveled, bike sharing and school bus idling. The questions from the council members were much more general and included topics like birth control and poverty in the developing world.
My question (which I didn’t ask at the forum and was not addressed) was how is this new target better than the existing one. Audacious goals are great, but there’s no way we can eliminate our CO2 emissions in 20 years. I’ll just take transportation as an example. By 2020 there’s a chance that the majority of new cars sold in Seattle will be electric and charged using carbon-free electricity, but most cars on the road will be older and still powered by a liquid fuel. This is not something Seattle can control. We can create a market for new cars, but we can’t design and build them. Maybe there will be a breakthrough in bio-fuels and cellulosic ethanol will be the fuel of choice. But we can’t make that happen, other than creating a market. But the talk today was much more about moving away from the car towards walkable and transit friendly neighborhoods. A wonderful goal that I fully support, but those are changes that take place over a century, not twenty years. Are we going to bulldoze neighborhoods that aren’t walkable? About all we can do is build sidewalks and bike lanes (at the rate we’re going, it will take more than 20 years to get sidewalks across the city). Seattle’s transit is about half-way to being good enough that the majority of our residents will give up their car. And we don’t control the bus system, the county does and hasn’t been interested in growing it fast enough to meet current demand, much less a massive increase. And even if we did, those buses run on diesel. Bio-diesel in 20 years?maybe.
What will we do in 2030 when we find that people who have working gas furnaces don’t want to give them up or gasoline powered cars that they need to get to their job in Kent? Will we force them to buy carbon offsets (in addition to a federal carbon fee)? Will we force them to install heat pumps or buy electric cars? Will we say, “Oh well, we missed our target, but we did reduce emissions 40% below 1990, and that’s a great accomplishment”? If it’s the last, then might we be better off just setting an obtainable goal?