Not much new here, really, but still worth noting: from the Seattle P-I, "Seattle sets own Kyoto goals for emissions."

To me, the thing that’s most noteworthy is the admission that, if greenhouse gas emissions are really going to fall in a city like Seattle, a lot of the reduction will have to come from the transportation sector.  Seattle’s electricity is already, at least nominally, climate-neutral.  Some gains can probably be made in industrial energy efficiency, and in buildings heated with gas or oil.  But the big story is likely to be in highway transportation:  cars, trucks, and buses.

Which leads to a few thoughts.  First, Nickels is making a risky promise, since it’s pretty hard for a city—with its relatively limited range of policy tools—to get people to use less gasoline and diesel fuel.  The city government can ramp up the efficiency of its own vehicle fleet, including buses.  But that only goes so far; the large majority of the transportation fuel in the city is consumed by private vehicles. 

And while the city can take lots of steps to foster more compact, transit- and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods—which are generally far more fuel efficient than sparsely populated suburbs—it’s probably going to have to attract lots of new residents to do so.  (You can’t create a dense neighborhood without adding people.)  But that puts the city in a bind: adding new residents could add to the city’s emissions tally, even as creating compact neighborhoods reduces it.  So in terms of total (not per capita) emissions, the city could wind up running faster and faster to stay in one place—kind of like the Red Queen in Alice and Wonderland.

  • The city is making its goals all the more difficult to reach, given its support for some major road projects (replacement of the Viaduct with a tunnel, plus widening the SR-520 bridge across Lake Washington).  If the transportation planners are correct, bigger roads will generate more car trips (that’s what they’re for, after all).  Increased traffic capacity comes with benefits as well as costs, of course; but one of the costs is to make it a lot harder to meet Mayor Nickels’s emissions goals.

    Of course, there are some things that the city can do to encourage people to drive less.  But most of them have to do with making it more expensive to drive—tolling roadways in the city, taxing parking, and the like.  Those are reasonable policy options—there are cities in the world that do those sorts of things.  But they’ll be tough to pass in what is, to a large extent, still a car-oriented metropolic.

    My second big thought here is that—perhaps—Seattle shouldn’t focus on reducing climate-warming emissions from within the city itself.  This isn’t necessarily an obvious point, and there may be no easy way to make this happen in practice.  But there could be easier, and more cost effective, means to reduce such emissions outside the city than inside it.  For example, Seattle city light could work with other utilities in the region to help them become climate neutral.  That could make a big difference to the region’s net climate impact—but it’s not the same thing as reducing Seattle’s own emissions, which is apparently the bar that the mayor has set for the city.

    The mayor’s set the city a big task, and I applaud him for it.  But it’s going to be tough going—it’ll require a lot of creativity, and perhaps some creative accounting, to get the job done.