Carbon Neutral Blog Post 15: It’s Technically Possible

Home » Carbon Neutral Blog Post 15: It’s Technically Possible

City of Seattle Seal

In my last post, I noted that the Council had adopted the Carbon Neutral Goal with some confidence that it is attainable, and that part of the basis for that conclusion was the findings in the report we commissioned from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).  SEI was tasked with creating a scenario for achieving Carbon Neutrality by looking at currently available and plausible technologies and estimating what we could achieve if we were able to get those technologies widely implemented around Seattle.

The results of the SEI study provided us with solid information that there is at least one pathway to carbon neutrality that is clearly within our technical capabilities.  There are many other possible pathways that were not examined, of course, and there is also a wide array of potential pathways that are not currently feasible but that could emerge as technologies evolve.  And, while this report verified technical capability, it did not look at political feasibility – which may make all the difference as we actually try to implement specific strategies to maximize implementation.  Building the political will and working out the ways to change culture towards a less carbon intensive way of life is the biggest political challenge.  But we couldn’t even begin to work on that unless we knew that there was a path forward that is technically possible.

There were three strategic outcomes that SEI identified as technically feasible and capable of reducing our emissions by 90% by 2050.

  • Reducing per capita travel by light duty vehicles by 50% by implementing strategies to promote ride sharing, transit, walking, and bicycling.
  • Reducing energy use in buildings and vehicles by an average of 50% per occupant in residential buildings, per square foot in commercial buildings, and per mile in vehicles.
  • Transitioning to lower carbon sources for homes, businesses, and vehicles, renewables generated electricity or hydrogen, with biofuels and biomass as bridging strategies.

All of these are areas where the City has substantial influence, but cannot achieve the goals without assistance from other levels of government and engaging the cooperation and involvement of business and science.  Above all, it will require building and working with a constituency of Seattle residents who will embrace the goals and explore and adopt the changes in behavior and economic strategies that will make it possible to put the policy and scientific innovations into practice.

Seattle is fortunate in having an active and engaged population, who are aware of environmental problems and determined to overcome them.  The network of community-based organizations who are involved in climate change issues in many different ways is extraordinary.  If we are to be successful, we must include the leadership of this network in helping to design and implement education and incentive programs, and we must work carefully with all of our residents to help craft the vision that will assure them that the carbon neutral goal is attainable while developing a richer and even more satisfying way of life.  People understand that sacrifice is necessary, and are willing to make surprising sacrifices to reach immediate and compelling objectives.  But we will only keep that commitment to the long-term progress and transformation that the carbon neutral goal requires if we can truly demonstrate that it will also be a better and healthier way of life.  We know that vision is possible — but a critical task is to articulate and communicate it.

There is a tremendous amount of detail in the Getting to Zero report, which can be accessed on — scroll down to the third paragraph and click on the link for a PDF of the whole report.  I will conclude this summary by reviewing one of the critical scenarios to illustrate how this interactive process among governmental entities, businesses, scientists, and residents will have to work.

Automobiles are always the favorite example, with some people throwing up their hands and saying we cannot achieve carbon neutrality without getting rid of them, and others throwing up their hands and saying that is not possible so we can never achieve carbon neutrality.  The truth is that we can achieve a transformation that dramatically reduces automobile carbon emissions by adopting a set of complex strategies that acknowledge the built-in and continuing dependence of our society on personal mobility, and that approaches the problem, not with the goal of ending personal mobility, but of making it work in harmony with the goal of carbon neutrality.

So that will require the national government to keep ratcheting up the required MPG; it means science has to keep finding ways to do that technically, while also ensuring that costs are not problematic; it requires the automobile manufacturers to comply and compete on the basis of achieving that goal; and it requires consumers to make it a priority and put their money where their environmental aspirations are.  The technical path is clearly within reach – making it economically possible and securing the political will, and business and consumer commitment are big tasks, but doable.  In this area, the City is largely a cheerleader and educator, building our local constituency, but we do not control the larger context.

Another step towards taming the automobile is getting more people to change their travel patterns.  The City has a much larger ability to influence this by funding and supporting transit, ride sharing, walking, and biking options, and by developing land use patterns (and community facilities) that support compact livable communities.  But people will ultimately have to make the choices – to vote for funding, to embrace living in compact communities, and to use the alternative modes.  Zoning by itself does not create compact communities – developers will have to build them, and they will only do so if they are convinced that there is a market for them.  And the patterns of incentives, tax systems, and regulations that are adopted at the state and federal levels will also be critical ingredients.  It’s a complex dance, and will require much work and a long-term perspective to move beyond wishing it were so to actually achieving better transportation systems on the ground.

The final stage in reducing carbon emissions from automobiles is the conversion to electric vehicles powered by renewably generated electricity.  Here again, there is a clear role for local government, but only the full involvement of all the actors will ultimately make this new system emerge.

We know that a carbon neutral, climate positive Seattle is possible – and we know that the only hope for success on a worldwide basis is for cities with commitments like ours to show the way.  There is great work to be done for everyone who wants to get involved!

Next:  How Seattle communities are already leading the way by transforming the food system!