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.
Good call here, Roger. You forced a contradiction that was hidden in the hoopla to the surface.I am not a tunnel fan. That kind of money is much better spent in other places. But if we are headed for a tunnel, we could make it part of the emissions reduction plan. It works like this:The arguments I’ve heard is that the Viaduct is used not so much for through traffic as for intra-city traffic – Harbor Island to Ballard, Wallingford to the stadiums, etc. This is the perfect traffic mix for electric and hybrid vehicles. Let’s set up a system that either increases tunnel tolls on conventional vehicles each year, or that outright prohibits progressively smaller conventional vehicles each year. If a Viaduct replacement is so indispensable, let’s make that tunnel earn its keep as an emissions reduction plan.To top it off, a local firm – Kenworth Trucks in Renton – already manufactures hybrid trucks. So by motivating a transition to hybrids, we support local manufacturing as well.Paul
“Let’s make that tunnel earn its keep as an emissions reduction plan.”Yes!And while we’re making that underground tunnel carbon-neutral, let’s make that street above it carbon-free, with bicycle lanes! Think big, think bold, think fresh air!!~Oregon Michelle (Seattle admirer)
Well said, what do you think about revisitng the “no transit in the tunnel agreement?” What are the possibilities for station access for bus rapid transit, could there be pull outs or at least key nodes or stops at the station portals? This has always felt so incredibly ridiculous to specify not including transit in a major initiative like this one. It might also allow better urban design at the portals, which I worry will be massively over designed for the automobile. Also, while I am at it I would appreciate Sightline’s insight on Transport 2040 and its not achieving of Climate Goals + I would look forward to more information on how we might influence this process toward better accounting for transportation investments. thanks
Great points. The Council does seem like they are promoting opposite ideas. With that said, WHO CARES? For all of us that want to see Seattle carbon neutral likes do something as a community.Visiting http://www.SeattleInnovators.org if you want to start building the tools necessary to make Seattle carbon neutral.
It’s worth noting that no one is more aware of the disconnect between the CO2 goal Mike O’Brien stated on behalf of the city and the city’s actual actions and plans (especially on the tunnel) than Mike himself. He’s been one of the most vocal of our leaders in pointing out that the tunnel, optimized for increased VMT, is completely inconsistent with the city’s emissions goals and the state’s VMT-reduction goals. He’s going to need support from all of us to get the rest of the council (let alone state gov’t) to take climate change seriously rather than just claim that they all take it seriously.
Getting from words to action requires organizational capacity and a social movement.We’re laying the foundations for exactly this kind of work around making Seattle a carbon neutral city by 2030.Join us at http://www.seattleinnovators.orgBest,Joe BrewerProject Coordinator, Seattle Innovators
‘Sustainability Gap’ is far too polite.Building or expanding freeways is a climate crime. Anyone who spends billions on freeway expansions while claiming to be green should be exposed for the dangerous hypocrites that they are. This list includes Premier Campbell of BC and the folks who want to spend billions on the freeway tunnel in Seattle.Note that Campbell claims to have just hosted the ‘Greenest Games’ in Vancouver, but spent a billion dollars expanding the highway to Whistler. During the Olympics, construction continued on what is claimed to be the widest freeway bridge in Canada, the new Port Mann Bridge which is part of a $3.1 billion freeway expansion. Next on Campbell’s list is the South Fraser Freeway on the banks of the Fraser River, one of our planet’s greatest salmon rivers, this one is only a $1.5 to $2 billion climate crime. Seehttp://www.straight.com/article-286495/vancouver/cathy-wilander-and-eric-doherty-scrub-greenwash-freeway-games
While the definition of sustainability is obvious, what’s less obvious is how to achieve it in reality and hold our leaders accountable. The balancing act is particularly tough when “thinking big”, because while we need to be visionary we also need steps that are attainable and to take care not to villainize what we see as antithetical to sustainability. The good thing is that low carbon strategies are generally more efficient in the long run, but the challenge is to be ready with solid facts as to why and have feasible alternatives at hand.In any case, I like this idea of a “sustainability gap” – it’s kind of like “greenwashing” but more tailored to politicians…
If we don’t like the “sustainability gap,” we really need to get out there and make our politicians hurt for not closing it. To meet a goal (any goal) takes sacrifice, and if our politicians seem fearful to ask us to sacrifice that’s likely because we haven’t yet shown them that we’re willing to.We must give of our time and energy to replace them with other politicians who will commit to policies and make sure our money is spent in a way that actually begins to close the gap.Or, barring that, at least make the threat of their replacement real enough that they realize this really matters to us. And that it matters to us enough that we’ll personally sacrifice to achieve it. That we won’t let anyone – out-of-touch city councillor or otherwise – stand in our way.That sorta thing.
Well said Roger – I like your idea of the Sustainability Gap. Sustainability is such an abstract concept and that allows the term to be used too freely. Yet there are examples of cities who have really tried to make a difference – e.g. Malmo, Sweden and Curitiba, Brazil. Cities such as Malmo and Curitiba have less of a Sustainability Gap, in my opiniion, as they have a long track record in things such as local renewable energy and public transport.
Michael is right – I have been to MalmÃ¶ in Sweden 3 weeks ago and they a lot of different Sustainability actions that they have taken. I’m curious as this will work out in the future. Here in Germany, we are just getting started with some of the measures.