As Seattle city leaders congratulate themselves this week for shrinking the city's contribution to climate change, their peers in Vancouver...

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As Seattle city leaders congratulate themselves this week for shrinking the city’s contribution to climate change, their peers in Vancouver, Wash., have a much more basic challenge: figuring out how much greenhouse gas their city makes.

Vancouver is just one of at least 28 other Washington cities that recently signed onto a much-touted pledge to match the international Kyoto global-warming treaty. But some of the state’s biggest cities face long odds of actually achieving the promise of cutting their emissions to 7 percent below 1990’s levels by 2012.

Many of the cities are still only in the earliest stages, with a deadline less than five years away. Several have effectively reneged on their pledges and have set more modest goals instead. Even cities that have worked on the issue for years are finding it challenging to retool communities built for cars and powered by fossil fuels.

“I don’t think people really grasp what it’s going to take,” said Mike Piper, Vancouver’s recently hired sustainability coordinator.

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“It’s huge. Particularly with the growth. If we were static it would be one thing. But this region has been growing a lot.”

This week, more than 110 mayors from cities around the United States are gathering in Seattle to discuss climate change. As a kickoff of sorts, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels announced Monday that Seattle is meeting the Kyoto goals.

But when the mayors arrive, this reality remains: Many of the more than 650 cities that signed the Kyoto pledge championed by Nickels last year have much further to go.

Washington cities offer a glimpse of the challenges of living up to the promise.

Like Vancouver, the cities of Everett, Bremerton and Spokane haven’t yet measured their citywide emission levels, current or past. That’s an important first step because it shows how big the cuts must be and what parts might be ripe for reductions.

Other cities, including Bellevue and Tacoma, have done those measurements. But they don’t have comprehensive plans for tackling the problem.

“It’s going to be difficult for us,” said Bill Baarsma, the mayor of Tacoma, which has a commission working on a plan. “We realize it’s going to be a tremendous challenge and it’s going to require a lot of cooperation,”

Bellingham is one city that does have a plan. But it doesn’t plan to meet the Kyoto target until 2020.

Political statement

While there’s no comprehensive list of how all the cities are doing, many are still in the very early stages, said Kim Lundgren, a regional director for ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability, a nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif., that works with cities on environmental issues.

Nickels’ Kyoto pledge always has been part a real target, part political theater. Proponents say the number of cities that have signed on pressures state and federal politicians to take climate change more seriously.

Even so, Nickels says, the cities that signed on should actually try to hit the goal.

“I think it’s important as a political statement,” he said this week. “Any of us who don’t make it, obviously, will be criticized in the community for not doing enough.”

But it may be too late for most of them. To make the deadline, most cities would already need to have the same emissions levels today as they did in 1990, said John Bailey of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that has studied the progress of 10 cities leading the pledge. The conclusion: Most probably won’t make their goals.

One reason is that the changes needed to reach the goals — increased energy conservation, less car travel — require major shifts in infrastructure, such as transit systems and roads, Bailey said. And a lot of those decisions are not up to local governments. Meanwhile, emissions in most of the 10 cities the group studied have been climbing.

Hydro power

Seattle has several advantages that helped it claim in a city-authored report that greenhouse gases produced by the city had fallen 8 percent below 1990’s levels as of 2005. That’s one tick past the 7 percent drop by 2012 promised in the Kyoto pledge.

Seattle controls the city’s electric utility, which uses enough hydro power that it doesn’t have to rely on polluting power sources. It also benefited from a temporary drop in cement production in 2005, which shrank emissions for the year.

But Seattle will have to try harder to meet the 2012 promise because the population keeps growing and traffic keeps piling up, city officials say.

The city of Portland can testify to how hard it is. The city has been working since 1993 to shrink its greenhouse-gas emissions, hoping to reach 10 percent below 1990’s levels by 2010.

Though levels have dropped, the city has been stalled at around 1990’s levels for the past few years, said Michael Armstrong, of Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development.

“It’s not like you put two policies in place and presto,” Armstrong said.

Despite it all, few think it’s a lost cause.

Lundgren, of ICLEI said it should be considered a major achievement that so many cities are even trying.

“I think the fact that people are setting targets and are striving to achieve reductions is more important than how quickly they get there,” she said.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or

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