In a little noticed report, Seattle, famous as the nation’s greenest city, reveals that it failed to hit the Kyoto treaty's green goal.
An undercurrent to the ongoing Shell No protests is that Seattle, as the greenest of cities, is uniquely positioned to make a forceful stand against Big Oil.
“Seattle has been at the forefront of sustainability on so many levels,” the national director of Greenpeace said.
Added a kayaktivist: “The tiny boats on the water against the backdrop of the giant oil rig … it is just very Seattle.”
It is. That is exactly our self-image.
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So it’s awkward that two months previous, the city of Seattle put up a little-noticed blog post titled “Digging Into Seattle’s Carbon Footprint.” The post didn’t say much other than the city did an inventory of greenhouse-gas emissions, summing up the carbon output of our cars, buildings and industry.
But the linked report actually marks the final judgment on what was probably the most highly publicized environmental initiative in Seattle history. Remember when former Mayor Greg Nickels rallied cities to embrace the Kyoto global-warming protocol, pledging to fight carbon emissions locally because the Bush administration refused to do it at a national level?
It got Nickels featured in Vanity Fair as the country’s greenest mayor. It won Seattle its status as a climate- change champion.
But it turns out we didn’t cut it.
What Seattle committed to try, inspiring hundreds of other cities, was to reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2012. That was the target identified in the Kyoto treaty, the theory being that emissions must be tangibly reduced to make a difference.
I loved that Nickels was leading by example. He put Seattle on the hook to do more than blab about sustainability. We had to produce results.
When Seattle made this pledge, in 2005, we already were 5 percent below 1990 levels (mostly due to City Light selling off its shares in a coal plant.) So the goal was not only politically potent. It seemed completely doable.
It didn’t turn out that way. The 2012 inventory shows emissions here rose since 2005. The report makes only a glancing mention, on page 6, of the Kyoto goal: “Seattle reduced GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions by 1 percent from 1990 to 2012, falling short of the target.”
The report instead argues that keeping emissions flat in such a fast-growing city is a major accomplishment. It’s true some other places did far worse. Dallas, for example, cut its government emissions by Kyoto levels but the overall emissions were 30 percent higher than in 1990.
Canada infamously dropped out of the Kyoto treaty when its nationwide emissions were up 20 percent.
But some other cities and countries put us to shame. Germany cut emissions 23.6 percent. Among U.S. cities that signed on to Seattle’s climate protection agreement, Portland, Ore., dropped its emissions 14 percent. San Francisco may be the true U.S. climate champion — it cut its total carbon output 23 percent.
Seattle failed mostly due to growth and traffic. For a big city, our mass-transit system is terrible. So most people still drive (myself included.) Despite cleaner cars, rising car and truck emissions swamped other gains.
Mike McGinn, Seattle’s mayor from 2010 to 2014, said Seattle’s Kyoto failure should prompt some soul-searching. He pointed out that the pushback he got for challenging car-dominated thinking was ferocious (including from this newspaper).
“The flavor of the public debate when I was in there wasn’t: ‘We’re waging a war on global warming,’ ” McGinn said. “It was: ‘You’re waging a war on cars.’ I got just pounded on that.”
He’s got a point. I guess the epitaph for both Nickels and McGinn could be: They tried. They did help make the climate a hot topic.
Seattle also is a young city, built more than most for the automobile. Any change away from that is bound to be as pricey as it is tumultuous. So maybe that’s part of why we didn’t hit the Kyoto mark.
But it doesn’t bode well that after all that publicity and pep-rallying, that we failed has been papered over. The city had already moved on to a new climate goal so shiny it sounds impossible: Cutting car and building emissions by a combined 62 percent by 2030.
Seattle, where at least the future always is green.