There’s a big carbon footprint report out today from Brookings. It ranks cities according to their per capita carbon emissions. Sort of, anyway.
Before I pick on it a little, I guess I should mention that Northwest cities do exceptionally well. Out of the 100 cities in the analysis Portland ranks 3rd, Boise is 5th, and Seattle 6th. There’s very little difference between them.
That’s wonderful and all, but the analysis only covers about 50 percent of emissions. It excludes, for instance, commercial and industrial energy, maritime and aviation emissions, and some other signficant pieces of the pie.
The scope of the research is understandably limited to available and comparable data, which makes the rankings possible. Specifically, that means the numbers for residential energy and transportation. And that’s a winning hand for Northwest cities simply because the region’s electricy grid is based heavily on hydroelectricity (and hydro doesn’t emit greenhouse gases). Now, there’s nothing wrong with taking credit—our electricity system is pretty darn clean—but in an analysis of such narrow scope, it tends to make us look better than we really are.
What’s surprising to me is how well the Northwest cities also do in terms of transportation emissions. Portland ranks 10th, Boise 11th, and Seattle 27th. Frankly, I’m surprised both by the rankings and the differences between them; surprised enough that I’m a little skeptical. But what do I know?
Maybe the most important lesson from the report is a semi-geeky one.
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Greenhouse gas inventories are an emerging field—and they’re tough. There are few standardized accounting protocols, the measurements are damnably complex, and any accounting requires a bunch of judgment calls. (We’ve written about this a bit here.) It turns out that one of the most important climate strategies for local governments is simply figuring out what their emissions are. Toward that end, Seattle and King County should take credit—they’re pioneering this stuff.
I don’t want to sandbag the report. I’m glad Brookings did it. It’s a good exercise, even if it’s only a partial accounting. Plus, they should also get props for framing the issue just right: cities matter, but we really need comprehensive federal legislation. In fact, the Seattle P-I has an exceptionally good article that contextualizes the study:
Another problem with these assessments, according to a local energy policy expert not involved in the project, is that nobody really agrees on how to measure a carbon footprint.
“There is no one perfect method for these calculations,” said Anne Steinemann, a University of Washington professor of civil and environmental engineering. Steinemann and colleagues at Vanderbilt University recently analyzed carbon footprint methods and found them highly inconsistent.
“There isn’t a standard, and it’s maddening,” agreed King County Executive Ron Sims, who is leading an effort to create such a standard. Last week, Sims was at a meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., sponsored by a U.N. initiative called the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, where officials discussed the lack of a routine measure.
“We’ve been working on that for King County and expect to come out with something very detailed and comprehensive sometime this summer,” Sims said. Numerous municipalities have contacted King County eager to adopt this much-needed urban planning yardstick, Sims said.
Steinemann said she had not read the Brookings Institution report but respects Brown’s expertise in this area and assumes that the data had to be limited in order to maintain the consistency of their analysis.
“It can be useful when taken in context,” she said.
That’s exactly right: useful when taken in context.
I applaud the nuance from everyone—from reporter Tom Paulson, from the author Marilyn Brown, and, it seems, from everyone quoted about the effort. It’s nice to see an elevated discussion like this.
I’m not convinced it makes sense to give Seattle credit for our hydropower. It’s all on a grid, and changes in consumption here still result in changes of generation elsewhere, so our power consumption has the same net effect as anyone else’s on the same grid – which includes California because power gets sent North or South based on relative demand and availability.Of course, this just supports your main argument: this kind of accounting is very complicated, and even when the facts aren’t in dispute deciding what to count where can be contentious.
Eric de Place
You make a fair point, Eldan. I don’t tend to agree that we should do the accounting that way, but there are lots of smart folks who do think we should do something like that. I suppose we could assign all cities on the Western grid the system average emissions portfolio. But that’s unsatisfying too. For one thing, it wouldn’t take into account the fact that some places—like Seattle—have intentionally done things to steer away from dirty power. Seattle won’t buy coal-fired power, for instance. Other cities have invested in gas turbines or coal or what have you. So even though the power if fungible and transfereable, I’m not sure we’re all equal. Anyway, as you say, it serves to point out the difficulty of GHG accounting at a small geographic scale.
I can fully understand why aviation and some other sectors were left out of the report. How would they assign CO2 responsibility for a flight that leaves Seattle and flies to Atlanta? Which city gets those CO2 emmissions? What about the passengers who were just passing through Seattle and Atlanta, but they actually live in other cities that don’t have a major airport?For some of these CO2 issues like aviation, the actual cities (Seattle, Portland, Atlanta) cannot do anything about it. Those issues must be addressed on a national/international level. So it is completely understandable why a rankings system would omit certain sectors of the CO2 pie graph.Just my opinion.
I am not surprised by Seattle and Portland doing better in the transportation emmissions category. Having lived in Tampa and Atlanta, I recently moved to Seattle. There are a lot more people in general who are making efforts in this region. It just seems to me (nothing statistical) that more of the vehicles are smaller and I see a lot more hybrids around here than I ever did in Atlanta.Also the bus system appears stonger. Nobody voluntarily uses the mass transit systems in Atlanta. In Seattle it seems like it is a choice that is welcomed, not avoided.
Any study that calls attention to GHG emissions and gets people thinking about them is a good thing in my opinion. The critical news is that we need to reduce the bad stuff from a current 380 parts per million down to 350 parts per million in the next 10 to 15 years to stabilize and begin to reduce the accumulated bad effects of 100 years’ worth of “smoking” if you will. While the Brookings report may make us look good right now, it doesn’t address the fundamental problem in my view. That is the notion that we in the States still believe that we are ENTITLED to continue avoiding the modest adjustments we could make in our lives to reduce our contribution to the problem. Easy stuff, like drying our clothes on a rack, installing a ceiling fan instead of air conditioning, flying a couple less trips a year, and PRESSING OUR GOVERNMENT FOR REALENERGY POLICIES encouraging renewable fuels and conservation.
Andrea, I read somewhere that even if we shut down every coal power plant immidiately (not likely) the CO2 level will continue rising.We will be lucky if they just manage to stabalize at 450 parts per million. From what I have been reading, that is a long shot.I have no idea what is realistic or achievable. But I know that without getting China on board, there is no way to stop this mess.
James, many climate scientists include Dr. James Hansen of NASA think that we must stabilize at 350ppm within decades. As Hansen says “Paleoclimate evidence and ongoing global changes imply that today’s CO2, about 385 ppm, is already too high to maintain the climate to which humanity, wildlife, and the rest of the biosphere are adapted.” Instead of being “lucky” if we stabilize at 450ppm for even a few decades, Hansen says we will likely pass tipping points in which “rapid changes proceed practically out of our control”. The result will be a “different planet” than the one “on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted”. That isn’t “lucky” by any sense of the word.It is also not impossible. But it does require acting now. Hansen and others have laid out a plan to get us back to 350ppm within decades. The key elements are a phase out of all coal emissions by 2030…and changes to forestry and agriculture to pull 50ppm out of the atmosphere.This is doable if we start now. It isn’t doable if we wait a few more years because it is “too hard”.China must come along…but the only way they will is if the nation that is responsible for the lion’s share of the problem, the USA, leads the way. The USA has put ~30% of the total CO2 into the air. All of Europe another ~30%. China has put less than 8%. USA citizens emit 4 times more CO2 each year per person than Chinese do. USA has money and technology to solve the problem. It is pathetic for USA to refuse to act in time to save civilization and the majority of living creatures on earth because it is waiting for a poorer and less responsible nation to go first.