There’s been a lot of ambitious talk lately about carbon neutrality. It’s exciting stuff, but it’s worth pausing to consider just how huge that challenge is. And what, precisely, does it mean? Zero emissions, or lots of offsets?
I thought it was interesting to take a look at the climate action plan from the city of Copenhagen. It’s certainly a contender for the title of the greenest and most progressive city on earth, and it’s a city that has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2025. But what you find is that even for the Danes, carbon neutrality is more aspirational than actionable:
By implementing the climate plan’s contributions—and assisted by the expected developments—we expect to reduce Copenhagen’s CO2 emissions from 2,500,000 tonnes CO2 today to about 1,150,000 tonnes in 2025.
To become completely neutral we must also remove just as much CO2 as we produce. We will need to compensate for the 1,150,000 tonnes of CO2 in 2025 by for example investing in still more windmills, use new technologies or plant forests which absorb CO2.
In other words, even Copenhagen doesn’t have a plan to achieve zero emissions. They’ll rely on what amounts to offsets for over a million tons of CO2, roughly half of their current carbon footprint.
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Still, their goals are astonishing: Copenhagen has an action plan to cut their already-low emissions in half over the next 15 years. Wow. That will be a signal achievement, and one that will no doubt provide valuable lessons for us in the Northwest, both in terms of strategies to reduce our emissions as well some clearer notion of what it means to be “carbon neutral.”
Applying Copenhagen’s achievement here in the Northwest makes for an interesting comparison because, as it happens, the city of Copenhagen is roughly the same size as the three big cities in the Northwest. Seattle emitted around 6.7 million tons of CO2 in 2008; Multnomah County, home to Portland, emitted about 8.5 million tons that year; while Vancouver claimed just over 2.5 million tons. (It’s important to keep in mind that these inventories measure different things in different ways, so comparisons between the numbers are not informative. For example, Vancouver’s number refers to a much narrower scope.) If each city followed Copenhagen’s lead and reduced its emissions by half—a phenomenal achievement—Seattle would need to offset more than 3 million tons of CO2, Multnomah-Portland more than 4 million tons, and Vancouver well over 1 million tons.
If Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver do as Copenhagen does, and succeed in cutting their emissions in half over the next 20 years, that will be worth shouting from the green rooftops. But even so, to reach carbon neutrality we’d be talking about somewhere in the range of $160 million dollars of investment annually by the cities for various carbon offset projects (assuming a price of $20 a ton for offsets). That’s a lot of money. And it’s an open question, at least to my mind, whether achieving “carbon neutrality” for a specific city for a specific point in time would really the best use of that money.
Now, in fairness, for all the hand-wringing they induce from people like me, offsets are not necessarily a bad idea. At their best, they can foster important advancements for developing countries, low-cost emissions saving in farm country, or ecological restoration. On the other hand, $160 million might be better spent making investments in strategies to further reduce emissions locally, even if those advancements wouldn’t result in carbon neutrality. Yet on the third hand, it’s not exactly clear how to achieve those further reductions; even Copenhagen doesn’t yet have a plan. I’d say we’re in a pickle.
Now before everyone accuses me of being a giant kill-joy, I should add that there are at least two reasons that a community may want to aim to be “carbon neutral,” even if what that really means is big offset purchases to supplement local carbon reductions.
Reason #1: “80% below 1990 levels by 2050” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. So even if we don’t know what “carbon neutral” looks like, it seems somehow easier for people to get their heads around conceptually. People are inspired by the idea of carbon neutrality in a way that they clearly aren’t by “the terms of the Kyoto Protocol” or “80%.”
Reason #2: We need something to push us—our elected officials, our businesses, and individuals—to think big. Really big. If, as a planet, we’re going to achieve climate stability, the time for incremental change has passed. As Knute Berger put it yesterday when he proposed removing a major bridge in the Seattle area: “Why, in the 21st Century, aren’t we repairing and restoring the environmental damage of the past instead of doubling down on it?”
That could be the kind of question people ask under the “carbon neutral” banner.
Yet I’m wary. The really game-changing climate policies are simply not at a neighborhood or city scale. They’re at the national and global scale—comprehensive and enforceable carbon limits or pricing.
While local areas can incubate ideas and build supportive constituencies, our climate action won’t ultimately add up to much unless it is comprehensive and much, much larger. So city-level aspiration should not be allowed to redirect our attention from national policy—it should be leveraged to reinforce the big stuff.
Eric,Thank you for writing about this timely and important topic. As you know, we’re organizing Seattle creatives around the vision of becoming a carbon neutral city (check us out at http://www.seattleinnovators.org).One thing that is critical is the role of regional innovation – especially social innovation – for developing better decision-making processes, enhanced movement-building tools, breaking down communication barriers between different communities, and engaging previously unheard voices in the process.We are excited to begin competing with Copenhagen in the race to carbon neutral. The benefits are going to be widespread and largely unpredictable relative to the old economic systems of the 20th Century. This is our chance to mobilize around a clear goal and go about the vital work of figuring out how to collaborate on unprecedented scales.In solidarity,Joe BrewerProject CoordinatorSeattle Innovatores
Matt the Engineer
You’re a giant kill-joy. :-)I don’t see why we can’t think globally and act locally: yes, push for carbon capping, but also work to be carbon-free right here. Our region is ahead of the rest of the US as far as climate attitude, so why wait for the slow states to catch up? With a goal of zero carbon we can make Seattle half carbon free, and offset the rest by paying the slow movers to catch up. Yes, offsets can be saving rainforests in Brazil, but they can also be tearing down a coal plant in Montana and replacing it with concentrating solar. It sure seems like spending $1 there would beat any incremental gain $1 would do here after we’ve already cut our carbon in half.I think another reason to aim at carbon neutral is that it’s the one number that isn’t arbitrary. There is an ethical purity and high ground that comes with making your self, city, or country carbon neutral. Right now all of us, especially in the US, are part of the problem – and that doesn’t feel good. Removing ourselves from that category would feel great.
Anima Sarah La Voy
Thanks for this thoughtful and well-written piece. I think you lay our your multiple hands fairly, and they all have to be considered. My only burning comment is about what I see as the extraordinary power of cities – particularly Seattle – which I don’t think is fully appreciated here.I recently moved here from Washington, DC – my hometown, and the town where my work had me focusing exclusively on federal level campaigns. Coming from that background, it was hard for me to look at Seattle and think ‘leverage’. But several months back, a good friend – Brett Horvath, for those who know him – really schooled me on the difference between the infrastructure mayors have under them versus the infrastructure our representatives in congress have. He pointed out the 11,000-some-odd staff in the city of Seattle, and the depth of connections to funding sources, organizations, and key figures in the local community. He talked about how mayor’s endorsements frequently signal major movement, whereas a senator or congressperson’s so frequently mean, well, not much. He talked about how the emissions causing ‘all the trouble’ really come down to about 40 places on earth – cities. He talked about innovation and the speed of change. By the time he was done with his details, he put the nail in the coffin by just bringing up the reality of the senate right now – how the system is just (simply) broken and stalling on that end. None of this was about denying the importance of Major, System-wide action – and that federal level legislation is a necessary part of that – but it did cause me to fundamentally rethink exactly where I am, and reorient my vision to the place I now see has (perhaps) the most leverage of any city in the country – Seattle. (And full transparency, yes, I am working with Joe on Seattle Innovators – and would love to have your perspectives/wisdom make the work even stronger.)