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Whither Carbon Neutral Seattle?

2011 August 11
by dan bertolet

Hey there Seattleites, remember back in late fall 2009 right after McGinn got elected mayor when Alex Steffen challenged the City of Seattle to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, and then the City Council adopted that idea as a 2010 priority, and then Councilmember Mike O’Brien convened an army of volunteers to address eight components of greenhouse gas emissions, and then the Office of Sustainability and Environment (OSE) contracted out a carbon neutrality study, and hey, have you been wondering what’s up with all that lately?

Well, that carbon neutrality study by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) is done, and it’s action packed. The proposed scenario would achieve steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in three main buckets: (1) transportation mode shift away from private autos: (2) greater energy efficiency in both vehicles and buildings: and (3) switching to less carbon intensive energy sources.

< Greenhouse gas emissions for the Seattle carbon neutral scenario; Stockholm Environment Institute >

In more detail, here’s what the study says could achieve a 90% reduction in Seattle’s per-capita emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 compared to 2008 levels:

  • 50% reduction in travel by light duty vehicles (replaced by walking, biking, and transit)
  • 50% increase in vehicle energy efficiency
  • Electrification of 80% of the vehicle fleet
  • 50% increase in building energy efficiency overall
  • By 2030 all new buildings achieve 75% energy savings
  • Energy retrofits penetrate 90% of all existing buildings and achieve 40 to 75% energy savings
  • 90% of existing residential buildings and all new single family use electric heat pumps
  • For new multifamily buildings, and for new and retrofit commercial buildings, half use district energy, and half use electric heat pumps

The proposed scenario was intended to be aggressive, not over-the-top, but no doubt the above bullet points would take some serious doing. To achieve the required mode shift to transit, for example, the assumption was a five-percent annual increase in transit service from 2010 to 2020 followed by a constant annual increase (equal to the 2020 increment) thereafter. That adds up to a huge boost in transit service, and right now we may be headed in the opposite direction. The assumed scale of building energy retrofits is way, way beyond anything that has ever been attempted, and would require a massive up-front investment.

Of course, that’s the reality of addressing climate change. We’re actually going to have to make an effort, imagine that. We could be—and should be—aggressively moving forward with the above strategies already.

There’s tons more fodder for debate and deeper questions raised by the SEI study (e.g. What happened to the 2030 target? What about consumption-based emissions? Can we afford it? etc.), and we can expect to be hearing a lot more about all of it as OSE gears up for a major update of Seattle’s Climate Action Plan over the coming year. For now I’ll take you back to where it started and leave you with the video below, Alex Steffen’s July 2011 TED talk on carbon zero cities: