Former Mayor Greg Nickels' 2005 pledge that Seattle would meet tough international emissions standards by 2012 made him a climate-protection superstar. But now that Nickels is out of office and 2012 is here, Seattle isn't in any hurry to find out whether it achieved the goal.
Former Mayor Greg Nickels’ 2005 pledge that Seattle would meet tough international emissions standards by 2012 made him a climate-protection superstar.
He appeared in a glossy Vanity Fair photo spread and led a climate summit in Seattle that featured former President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
Over the next few years, with Nickels’ urging, more than 1,050 U.S. mayors signed on to reduce carbon emissions to pre-1990 levels by 2012 — a standard known as the Kyoto Protocol.
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But now that Nickels is out of office and 2012 is here, Seattle isn’t in any hurry to find out whether it achieved the goal.
Mayor Mike McGinn says we’ll find out eventually. He says his more pressing concern is regional leaders pushing transportation plans that make global warming worse, not better. And the Seattle City Council has moved on to a longer-term goal of total carbon neutrality by 2050.
Nearly everyone likes reducing emissions, but the Kyoto issue reveals the change in approach from one environmentalist mayor to another. Nickels took a hybrid SUV to work and supported mainstream highway projects and regional light rail, but held news conferences to push food-waste recycling and encouraged saving water with showers-for-two.
McGinn, former Sierra Club leader and longtime bike commuter, has fought largely accepted highway projects and pushed walking, biking and transit as the best ways to get around.
Environmentalism is still key to Seattle’s image, but the goals are loftier and the approach more combative.
“The Kyoto framework was very cumbersome and not very easy to understand,” said Jill Simmons, the city’s director of Sustainability and the Environment. “It was powerful from a political standpoint.”
The last time Seattle measured emissions, in 2008, the city was achieving the Kyoto goal. However, the population has grown since then and it wasn’t clear whether Seattle would be able to maintain lower emissions through 2012.
The city has data about emissions from 2011, Simmons said, but won’t get around to crunching the numbers until 2013. Besides measuring air quality, the city considers emissions caused by creating electricity for the city, emissions from the airport, and other things.
Nationally, the movement is not doing well, either.
“We haven’t talked about it as much in the past year,” said Kevin McCarty, managing director of the Climate Protection Center at the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
McCarty said the economy has eclipsed concerns about cities’ carbon footprints. “We’re simply trying to respect the level of unemployment and effect of the economy across the country,” he said. “A lot of mayors who committed are focused on other things.”
McGinn has taken a broader approach from the mayor’s office. He spent his campaign and much of his first two years in office fighting the planned Highway 99 tunnel.
He said regional transportation plans don’t mesh with the stated promise to reduce emissions.
“I’m personally committed to the actions necessary to reduce carbon emissions, and I think we see a lot of excitement in … buildings and the like.” But, he said, “in transportation, we have a really big challenge. It’s kind of a mixed bag. What’s the willingness to make harder decisions?”
In October, the Seattle City Council made a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, with short-term goals along the way.
That means the city would have to have the equivalent of net zero emissions from transportation, industry and other carbon-creating activities in the city. To offset some carbon, the city could invest in sustainable forms of energy.
Whether the city meets the Kyoto standard or not, Councilmember Mike O’Brien said, the effort was successful because it got local leaders motivated on climate change.
Nickels’ pledge inspired O’Brien to get involved in environmental policy, he said.
“We always knew that Kyoto was a step along the way,” O’Brien said. “I think it was apparent back then and it’s apparent now that those steps that we were taking weren’t going to get us all the way to where we need to be.” Nickels said such a long-term goal is “visionary” but less difficult.
“It’s great to say that by 2050 we’re gonna be carbon neutral, but you know, honestly, I’m going to be dead,” Nickels said.
He said he favored day-to-day changes that let people say: “I took some action that helped get us part of the way.”
Nickels pushed people to make individual decisions to shrink their “carbon footprints” — shorter showers, reusable bags, CFL light bulbs. And the idea caught on with mayors around the country.
When Nickels announced in 2005 that the city would meet the Kyoto standards, he was making a political statement at a time when 141 countries were signing the same agreement, but not the United States. As more mayors signed on, it was seen as a sign to the international community that individuals in the U.S. were committed to the environment, even if the federal government wasn’t signing the treaty.
“It really did keep hope alive,” said KC Golden, policy director at Climate Solutions, a local environmental group. “I think it was a very important statement both to our community and to the rest of the world about America’s willingness to be part of the global campaign to solve this problem.”
Now that 2012 is here? Carbon emissions are a big deal, but McGinn said it’s time to focus long term.
“The fact is that in 2013 there will be an inventory, and we’ll see if the city met it, and that will be important information,” he said. “To me the critical question is … are we taking the big steps now that are critical to reach the long-term goal?”
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.