December 8, 2012 – Will Seattle’s Climate Action Plan keep us from getting a winter tan?

Most people today (even ExxonMobil) are becoming aware that climate change is evident, largely anthropomorphic, and that something needs to be done. Our modern industrialized world has been achieved for the most part through the energy advantages found in fossil fuels. But now it is recognized that the “peak oil” phenomenon (increased global demand and increased extraction costs) will drive energy costs higher. And the negative impacts of obtaining energy from fossil fuels have upset the planet’s natural carbon cycle resulting in increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere and the oceans. At present these are exceeding projections and driving a myriad of negative outcomes from rapid melting of the polar ice sheets to impacting the formation of oyster shells here in the Puget Sound.

Doing something has put Seattle in the forefront of a global movement to have municipal governments define strategies and policies addressing climate change. Seattle has invested significant time and effort to prepare a Climate Action Plan.

Seattle touts its Climate Action Plan as “visionary” and “bold”, offering “buckets of strategies” for our electeds to devise policy from. Yet the plan focuses on narrow range of strategies to make Seattle ‘carbon neutral by 2050’, largely centered on reducing green house gas (GHG) emissions from transportation sources, making building more energy efficient, and waste (garbage, recyclables) processing. Additionally, recommendations on how to prepare for the impacts of climate change are being considered.

Seattle has many advantages over other municipalities wanting to make these moves. It has been a technology and innovation hub, and its residents generally have a ‘green’ veneer. But by far our largest advantage is that nearly all of our electricity generation comes from hydro power. Because fossil fuels still power our vehicles, home heating and our industries, it is here where a transitional plan is most necessary both to insulate us from rising fossil fuel costs and the impacts of CO2 on our environment.

The Climate Action Plan calls for reductions in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by adding density around transit stops to foster less (or no) auto use for new residents in TOD (Transit Oriented Development), encouraging more biking, walking and transit use, and creating housing stock and commercial districts that vastly restrict cars as a mode of transit. It also calls for zoning changes in the single-family zones – something that many Seattle residents have long resisted. The land use and zoning recommendations mirror recommendations made previously by the Planning Commission because it is they who were asked to develop the land use and zoning portion of the plan. The plan claims that GHG emissions from on-road passenger transportation will be reduced up to 76% by 2030 from the 2008 baseline. While this may be apparent for the projected 100,000 new residents arriving in that same period if they live car-free, existing populations are assumed to be using electric vehicles or walking, biking and using public transit far more than they do today.

The plan also calls for the retrofitting of existing buildings to increase energy efficiency and convert energy sources away from fossil fuels (to electric heat pumps), and stricter energy codes for new buildings, and the use of energy districts to pool local efficiencies, such as heat transfer from sewage.

But uncertainty remains as to whether electric vehicles are wholly viable since battery technologies are still evolving and introduce a myriad of environmental issues themselves. The biofuels called out (currently about 5% of our national energy) require the conversion of food crop land into energy crops. Such shifts caused a corn shortage around the world a few years ago, and rapidly changing weather patterns and other environmental issues are exacerbating our arable lands situation in the US.

The costs associated with reshaping our built environment to shift residents’ transportation mode from the car to a vastly improved transit, biking and walking infrastructure are not provided, but are arguably in the billions. How these changes will be funded is undefined.

The plan avoids measuring carbon impacts of consumption, our externalized carbon impacts, impacts of growth (e.g. the carbon footprint of new development, the deep bore tunnel or light rail), and studiously avoids all transportation impacts of the hundreds of thousands of people coming and going from Seattle to work daily (only VMT within the city is considered).

Finally, as a model for other cities, just how valuable is our climate plan? Nationwide, hydro only delivers about 5% of energy needs (it’s 15% worldwide). Increasing this source only comes with risk to other ecosystems and has already exacerbated water rights conflicts. And much of the world is precluded from this asset. As a “leader” in this realm, we may not have many followers.

What purpose does this plan for the next nearly 40 years matter if climate change continues because of the rest of the world’s actions (or non-action as the case may be). While Seattle may be (almost) ‘carbon neutral’ and a more pleasant place to bike around, will mass migrations of peoples, disrupted economies, and a bleaker energy future subvert this effort? Are we really making the right plan for climate change or just making a plan to encourage more and faster growth?

This month’s speaker is Christie Baumel, Climate Protection Advisor, Office of Sustainability and the Environment.

Seattle’s Climate Action Plan

by Bill Bradburd 12/4/2012

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