History is replete with political leaders setting big goals to fix problems in our society or address some perceived external threat to national or global security or well being. Nowadays federal, state, provincial and local governments are setting lofty goals around climate change, vowing carbon reductions and even carbon neutrality. Cities throughout our region are getting into the act on reducing their carbon emissions. Vancouver B.C and Portland both have ambitious reduction targets and, surprisingly, Lincoln City, Oregon is laying claim to being almost carbon neutral. This doesn’t include the effort to make Oregon wineries carbon neutral.

But what is missing is the drive to close the gap between words and actions. The recent announcement of the Seattle City Council’s priorities for 2010 is a perfect example.

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  • Earlier this week, in a flurry of press releases and Facebook updates, the Seattle City Council announced its priorities for 2010, an agenda that it dubbed “Build a livable city for our future.” The agenda has 17 different items, about 3 for each councilmember. Each councilmember rose in turn to address their items, including “a rigorous and efficient confirmation process for a new Chief of Police,” improving social equity in the city,  making 2010 “The Year of Urban Agriculture,” expanding the community garden program, and reducing domestic violence.

    The gap between words and deeds on reducing carbon emissions came when Councilmember Mike O’Brien declared that the City would set a goal to become carbon neutral only to be followed by Councilmember Sally Bagshaw who said

    Last Tuesday, our mayor stood here and said that he respected the council’s 9-0 decision that we made last fall to move ahead on the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement project and bore tunnel and we want to thank him for that. . . we’re all in this together, whether we’re designers and architects or whether we’re people making the decisions. We’re moving forward. We want to make sure this happens

    Bagshaw made it clear that a great waterfront means building a tunnel under Seattle’s waterfront that will cost more than $4 billion—the entire cost of the big project including some major non-tunnel elements—with a potential for overruns.

    Taken as a whole, the city council’s vow to achieve carbon neutrality while building an expensive underground highway is a bit like John F. Kennedy telling Congress in 1961 that we would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade, and then signing legislation defunding NASA.

    Reaching carbon neutrality at some point certain in the future while spending billions on large scale highway projects doesn’t pass the red face test. Sightline’s previous research has found that building more roads produces more carbon emissions (though GHG modeling for this project does not show a significant increase in regional emissions). And a recent inventory of Seattle’s emissions found that 62 percent of the city’s GHG emissions are transportation related, with two-thirds of that coming from cars and trucks. A highway replacement may not increase emissions, but it does seem to lock them in for the long term at a time when local, regional, and state governments are supposed to be doing everything they can to encourage use and investment in transit and reducing vehicle miles traveled.

    The City Council runs the risk of falling into what I call the “Sustainability Gap”; the difference between what policy makers say about sustainability and the policies they actually support. (In British Columbia, for example, Premier Gordon Campbell has taken a drubbing from some environmentalists for precisely this reason.) On the one hand, setting big goals on carbon neutrality can be motivating for a city, just as Kennedy’s speech helped propel Americans toward a moon landing. But we must remember that Kennedy and subsequent administrations spent serious money and made real policy choices to accomplish the goal they had set out. Closing the Sustainability Gap in Seattle, as in other jurisdictions around the Northwest, will likewise mean making tough choices with scarce resources—and that should include evaluating road projects that may not pencil out when it comes to carbon neutrality.