The city of Seattle last year produced 7 percent less greenhouse gas than it did in 1990 — a target the city had hoped to meet by 2012. But it's still not clear how or if the city will be able to maintain that success or achieve its long-term ambitions to drive down more substantially...

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The city of Seattle last year produced 7 percent less greenhouse gas than it did in 1990 — a target the city had hoped to meet by 2012.

But it’s still not clear how or if the city will be able to maintain that success or achieve its long-term ambitions to drive down more substantially the emissions that contribute to global climate change.

On Tuesday the city’s departing mayor, Greg Nickels, who leaves this weekend to attend the Copenhagen climate talks, called the new emissions inventory a sign of “walking the walk and talking the talk.”

After the Bush administration refused to join the international Kyoto Protocol, a treaty capping carbon dioxide and other gases, Nickels, in 2005, made a name for himself nationally by pledging that Seattle would meet the treaty’s goals anyway. The treaty called for capping emissions at 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. More than 1,000 other cities have since joined Nickels’ pledge.

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Last year, the new measurement reveals, the city was achieving that precise goal even as its population grew. But to hold that level for the next three years and drive it down more by midcentury means “we still have substantial challenges ahead,” said Michael Mann, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment.

The biggest issue remains what it has always been: driving.

The city recently started measuring its emissions once every three years and has seen declines from 1990 levels in nearly every category — homes, commercial buildings, heavy industry. Some reductions have been huge, mostly owing to investments by Seattle City Light in renewable energy, and a move away from oil burning for heat.

But overall emissions have actually increased slightly since 2005 — the first year the city conducted a thorough audit of its greenhouse-gas pollution — thanks to population growth, new development and at least one particularly cold winter.

And emissions from the single largest polluting sector — road vehicles — rose 5.5 percent in those three years. The recession merely prevented them from climbing higher.

City officials maintain progress is clear: Population has increased 16 percent since 1990, a quarter of that since 2005. Yet the number of miles traveled by cars and trucks rose slightly less, suggesting people are beginning to get out of their cars. The most substantial growth in emissions from vehicles largely comes from commercial truck traffic.

“The encouraging news is that on a per-capita basis it [transportation] is going in the other direction,” said Jill Simmons, senior climate-policy adviser for the city.

City officials also said recent efforts to boost transit, build walkable neighborhoods, make parking more expensive and add bike lanes will help get more people out of their cars in coming years.

Still, Alan Durning, executive director of Sightline Institute, a Seattle sustainability think tank, gave the city kudos for even attempting to track those emissions. But he also said the measurements require the use of so many models the numbers themselves are less reliable than general trends.

“I’d say the city of Seattle did better than I expected” during the last three years, he said.

Meanwhile, Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation, said he considered efforts to track this information important, in part because cities will see the most growth during this century.

“The 1,000 largest cities of the world is where people are migrating to and where most of the C02 is getting produced,” he said.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com