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Voting for a Climate Neutral Future
Alex Steffen, 8 Jan 10

People are buzzing here in Seattle about the idea of making a commitment to city-wide carbon neutrality by 2030 an explicit part of the city's planning, environmental and economic development strategies. That's damn exciting.

One of the issues that looks to rear its wonky head quickly is "what does carbon-neutral mean?" Because we're dealing with complex systems (systems in fact so complex that no one person can actually know them as a whole), the challenge of dividing those systems into measurable parts is mind-bendingly difficult. Simply knowing where to draw the boundaries between one part and another becomes a huge task. Just to take a few for-instances:

*Are toys manufactured in China but played with by Seattle children part of China's footprint, or ours?

*Are emissions captured by trees growing in the city's watershed fair to count, or not?

*Are barrels of oil burned by the U.S. military part of Seattle's climate impact or not?

By necessity, solving these kinds of definitional problems will take both a lot of researched argument and a fair number of judgment calls.

Some people seem to think that the fact that there's no readily agreed-upon definition of climate neutrality means that having it as a goal is pointless. These people are silly. In the real world, the definitional issues are absolutely critical to the work as a whole, so not only is arguing out what we mean by climate neutral not a distraction, it's a key part of the process. It's part of what will focus our minds on the work to be done; it's part of the benefit we'll be offering the world by doing this; it's even, potentially, a modest local economic development strategy, since expertise in these issues will without question become a marketable, exportable skill in the future.

So let's have that argument, loudly and in public. In fact, let's have that argument in a very public way: let's put our definitions to a public vote.

Let's run a competition with various teams coming up with basic models of measuring climate neutrality and ways of explaining them in terms regular people can understand (remembering that in Seattle, a majority of citizens have college educations and at least some understanding of the environmental issues involved). For instance, a team might say, "we believe that we should only measure what actually happens in the city limits, and believe that it all probably balances out in the end," while another might announce that "unless we trace all Seattle consumption back to its source carbon impacts, we're cheating, so we'll develop models for doing that," while still a third might come up with another angle. Let the teams develop the models, and their explanations for why they think their models are best. Have a jury select the three strongest cases. Then let the people of Seattle vote on which one they think makes the most sense.

A definition of carbon neutrality selected by popular vote would have all sorts of benefits. The competition to put forward models would drive modeling/footprinting innovation. The development of campaigns to win votes for those models would encourage new ways of explaining these complex issues through design, storytelling and education. The media debate between them would enrich the public's understanding of the issues. The private process of weighing which standard to vote for would give citizens a chance to wrestle with their own thinking about the issues, and better inform themselves. The selection of a winner would mean that we had a standard backed not just by the scientists and policy-makers, but by the people of the city as a whole.

That, in turn, could be one of the project's biggest legacies. In a nation where science and rational debate on climate are under brutal political assault, having a major city pick its own standard based on science and rational debate would itself be a bold move.

Let the people vote for the future they want!

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Hey Alex,

This is a great idea! I'm all for it.

At the same time, you might be interested to know that other cities are moving forward on carbon neutral objectives. Just this morning I talked with Rachel Nunn at Keep Stirling Beautiful about their project called Going Carbon Neutral Stirling. We can learn from their example.

As part of Seattle's Innovation Engine, the project I'm coordinating in the region to catalyze our creative throughout for the long haul, there is already talk among local carbon emission experts about the definition of carbon neutral. We're all coming together to take your call to action seriously!

In solidarity,

Joe Brewer
Director, Cognitive Policy Works
Project Coordinator, Seattle's Innovation Engine

Posted by: Joe Brewer on 8 Jan 10

Joe, does the Stirling group have any actual targets? I couldn't find them on their site. (Worth noting, too, that the kind of challenge carbon neutrality is differs significantly between North American and European cities...)

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 8 Jan 10

Naomi Devine writes:

Great column. I can give you a bit of perspective on how this is going in British Columbia. I wrote the Carbon Neutral Plan for Whistler, and our council passed it in September 2009. We will be Canada's (and North America's) first carbon neutral municipality - beginning in 2010.

Much hinges on the definition, and this is turning into a political issue by implication. Your thoughts on scope are quite important; scope is defined in BC by the provincial government. Municipalities in BC signed on to the voluntary BC Climate Action Charter (in 2008) and agreed to this main point: to become carbon neutral in operations in 2012. Scope is defined as traditional municipal services (including contracted services).

Whistler (and BC's government) went for the definition of carbon neutrality that calls on measuring, reducing, and then purchasing third-party verified offsets to get to our theoretical zero. (In BC we can purchase them from the newly formed Pacific Carbon Trust, the crown corp that procures verified offsets in BC). This is where contention is appearing - now that municipalities are having to contend with carbon for the first time, they are wanting the political benefit of keeping the carbon offset money local as well. So - some are investing in energy reduction projects in their boundaries, with no verification, leaving one wondering if they achieve any reductions at all. There is no way to assure this, thus leaving some areas in a situation where you could have public money being invested for no or little carbon reduction benefit. This concerns me because it would further erode tenuous public support for climate action.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 8 Jan 10

Thanks for jump-starting this conversation (again), Alex. The goal of carbon neutrality -- or zero emissions -- is exciting because of its ambition and simplicity. And yet the technical challenges, as Alex notes, could maybe be daunting.

What may be even more daunting is how to tie this goal for Seattle to a broader global plan of action, i.e., how to make the goal even more than a great rallying cry and also make it a key piece of the global technical and ethical challenge of addressing climate change? I'd like to see a definition for carbon neutrality that builds from the latest scientific findings on what global emission reductions are necessary (e.g., to meet a 2 degree C warming guardrail) as well as a fair means of assigning responsibility for those emission reductions (e.g., sometimes called burden sharing or carbon budgeting).

Taking such an approach -- and downscaling it to a city scale -- could provide both a scientific and ethical basis for a definition of a carbon neutral Seattle. (And I'm working on such a definition...maybe for the contest!)

Posted by: Pete Erickson on 8 Jan 10


I love the spirit of what you're proposing but I think a "public vote" is the wrong tool. Mass coliseum-style voting on complex issues tends to produce lowest common denominator campaigns that miss out on our collective intelligence.

The right tool for this is something more like what Perth (Australia) did in 2004 when they urgently needed to come up with a plan to deal with sprawl and to get past their bitter conflicts around that issue. They ran an amazing process which they called Dialogue with the City. It included a lot of what you're hoping for: thoughtful media campaigns, online dialogue, small working groups, iterative large group process, .. in short, deep deliberative democracy.

I agree wholeheartedly that one of this project's (and McGinn's) biggest legacies could be institutionalizing truly participative democracy - but only if we learn from and adopt the process models that are out there (such as Perth's and also British Columbia Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform), proven, and truly innovative.

Posted by: Phil Mitchell on 8 Jan 10

Phil-- I support the *idea* of a deliberative process, but the reality that seems to always emerge in Seattle is a debilitating process... a descent into boringness, into NIMBY obstructionism, into watered-down goals, into the rule of the iron butt. Process is so broken in Seattle that I'm suspect of it being fixed at this level.

Have an expert panel pick the best three options, have the people vote on which one they like -- combines the best in representative democracy w/ genuine public debate. IMHO... your mileage may vary...

But let's say I'm totally wrong: how would you structure that process? What would be its goals and outcomes?

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 8 Jan 10

Alex -- Count me in -- this is terrific. I know Phil has thought deeply about deliberative democracy. I'm attracted to your straight-over-tackle approach, and don't pretend to know which is best, but it seems worth thinking about more -- with the guiding principle that genuine public ownership is the goal. There's a decent chance that an approach like Phil's would produce a more thoughtful outcome. But yours would produce more buzz, and I think that's worth a lot in the sense that it affirms that this is on the front burner of our collective agenda. The trick would be to come out the other end with something we can implement....but political will is the lion's share of that trick.

While we're "defining" it we might also want to think about renaming/recalibrating it. "Neutrality" has always struck me as, well, neutral, when I think we are shooting for passionate engagement. I would be attracted to calibrating it off of 350 ppm....which probably does mean pretty damned close to zero in 2030. And what to call it? Carbon-free?

Not to jump the gun on the public process, but I think the role of offsets should be seriously constrained. We ruled them out entirely for the Green Ribbon Commission, but of course that was a less ambitious goal. I'd rather see Seattle go full bore at the really tough issues like reducing the use of liquid fuels, than punt them and offset -- even if it means higher risk of falling short or adopting a somewhat less aggressive goal.

Really appreciate your leadership on this....

Posted by: KC Golden on 8 Jan 10

That's a big question, so here are just some initial thoughts.

First, I'm not aware that Seattle has ever tried well-designed deliberative process on anything like city scale. Yes, we've had some high profile charrettes, but unless they're connected to decision-making authority, they're just exercises. We're stuck in the model of self-selecting committees and councils on the one hand, or open public meetings with a line at the microphone on the other. Both are pretty bad models.

Second, this can't just be about the "definition of carbon neutrality." That's your inner wonk speaking. It won't resonate with the public. We need to have a deep collective conversation around the whole idea of making Seattle carbon neutral. And even that framing may or may not be the right one.

Goals: create a sense of collective responsibility and engagement; collective empowerment; deep education; collective buy-in for the conclusions. You cannot mandate massive transformation from the top-down. We have never tried to do it by inviting people into shared responsibility.

Process: IMO two of the key process elements are:

1. Use stratified random sampling to ensure that SOME of the key deliberating bodies are truly representative of the public.

2. Use a hybrid process to enable a large number of people to participate.

A good place to start in thinking about the process would be to model it after Perth:

1. Start with broad public engagement. Use surveys, media partnerships, talk radio, etc. to start the conversation around the topic of carbon neutrality.

2. Use a large-scale deliberative process (such as 21st century town hall) to come to some guiding principles for the work groups. The key thing Perth did here was use some simulation tools to force people to make the tough trade-offs.

3. Have work groups that are empowered to make implementation-level decisions.

As I said, this is not thought through, it's just one example of an approach that is profoundly better than the way we make our biggest, most critical decisions today.

Posted by: Phil Mitchell on 8 Jan 10

Just saw KC's comment that crossed paths with mine. The thing that I love about the Perth process is that it combined the small-scale "thoughtful" processes with very buzz-oriented, large-scale conversations. They're not mutually exclusive, they can be complementary.

Posted by: Phil Mitchell on 8 Jan 10


I'm not sure how they define it in Stirling, Scotland. I'll ask Rachel to come and post a comment here to share their approach.

I resonate especially well with Phil's last comment about finding a way to have our mission resonate deeply with the core identities of people throughout the Puget Sound region. It's perhaps less important - from the perspective of community transformation - how we go about the technical aspects of defining carbon neutrality. The more essential thing is that the vision we collectively articulate engages people in a way that will carry them through a 20 year process.

Oh, and Phil, perhaps we should talk about the idea of connecting a high profile charrette with decision-making authority. The model we're developing for the Seattle Innovation Engine will incorporate both throughout a deep structural web of activities.

Posted by: Joe Brewer on 8 Jan 10

Great idea. Would such a model look different in Seattle than it would in, say, a rural area or even a single household? And if not, could teams outside of Seattle participate?

ps. I think there's a little typo in "let's put our definitions to a pubic vote."

Posted by: Thijs Moonen on 9 Jan 10

Proofreading alert: Are you sure you want to "put our definitions to a pubic [sic] vote"? :)

That aside, I agree that it's time for some kind of big public process / community conversation locally, & deeply appreciate your leadership in making that happen. I will help however I can.

Posted by: Lansing Scott on 9 Jan 10

Is this a private party or can anyone join in? (Alas, the Melbourne 2030 vision is a sick joke these days)

Sounds like what might be needed to achieve this is something similar to the Energy Descent Action Plans of the Transition Town movement (I'm thinking of the story telling side)

Anyway, as a first guess, I would say that emission measurement should be divided in two: emissions you're responsible for but can't do much about (national stuff like the military usage alluded to above) and the stuff you can do something about.

Concentrating on the latter, I would define it as any emissions that are a direct result of the actions of Seattle residents. So, yes, the carbon footprint of toys from China are in. (You buy, you offset) Sequestration should be creditted in the same way.

National emissions you have no control over should be measured for reasons of comparison: is it possible to proactively offset them, or do they loom over all other efforts like the Chinese coal industry?

Similarly, local emissions may prove impractical to deal with or measure. Nevertheless, they should be identified and not just swept under the carpet.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 9 Jan 10

*Are toys manufactured in China but played with by Seattle children part of China's footprint, or ours?
I would say that the purchase price of any good or service must include the total cost of it's manufacture.
The competitiveness of capitalism drive companies to the equilibrium between doing anything to lower the cost to produce, and the cost of penalties incurred to do so. These penalties include lost revenue due to poor public opinion reducing sales. Focusing only on those costs of natural resources and waste, these must be things that can be measured and are monitored other parties.
At the moment, we are primarily concerned about waste. Ideally, waste should be processed to return the constituent elements back to the place in the environment that they were taken. That is to say, if the carbon content of the waste came from the ground, it must go back into the ground. The entity that does the processing will of course charge the manufacturer for this cost which then gets passed on to the consumer.
Therefore, toys made in China are part of China's footprint, but the offset is paid by the purchaser in Seattle.
The only wrinkle in this is of course, the monitoring of waste and adherence to policy. It is my opinion that if the policy adherence is poor at the location of manufacture, it is the responsibility of the importer/purchaser to make up the difference. Specific to the given example, the US should tariff the import and the tariff used to offset the gap in China's waste processing.

Posted by: Brian Chojnowski on 9 Jan 10

Typo fixed, thanks!

Good comments -- interested to hear what others think, as well.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 9 Jan 10

I wholeheartedly support KC’s suggestion that we calibrate the goal to 350 ppm. Doing so would make our Seattle model a key and replicable part of a global plan.

And in the context of a 350 ppm goal, I think we need to consider adding another piece to our puzzle: support for emission reductions in developing countries.

Since the world needs to depart radically from its current emissions trajectory – and assuming that the responsibility for making these cuts should lie more with those who (1) have emitted more historically and (2) have more capacity to invest in solutions – then the U.S. (Seattle included) would need to take even more responsibility for a global solution than the cuts we make ourselves. In particular, we would need to financially support dramatic emission reductions in developing countries that have not been large emitters and that still struggle to meet basic human needs.

The implications can be striking. One 2008 analysis (the Greenhouse Development Rights) calculated that if we account for responsibility (historic emissions) and capacity (income), the U.S. would need to reduce its emissions by over 50% (compared to 1990 levels) by 2030 as well as pay for reductions in the developing world equivalent to more than 60% of U.S. 1990 levels. Now, those two figures add to more than 100%. In other words, a fair system for assigning global responsibility for addressing climate change may require that we go the equivalent of carbon *negative*.

So, too, in Seattle. I think our goal should include both ambitious cuts in Seattle as well as support for emission reductions in developing countries. Depending on how we define it, that may require that our goal be even lower than zero. Or, maybe instead, that we define zero relative to our global obligation, not just to our local emissions.

Posted by: Pete Erickson on 9 Jan 10

Hi Alex,
I'm glad you are still pushing this idea.

I say shoot the moon and plan for a carbon *negative* city by 2030 if we're really serious about Seattle leading the way to 350. We've got a long backlog of carbon debt to clear. Stop talking, start planting trees.

Phil Mitchell comments that he's "not aware that Seattle has ever tried a well-designed deliberative process on anything like city scale." I can think of one.

Let's think back to that very deliberative process completed just a decade ago in Seattle for community-generated neighborhood plans. Imperfect, yes. And at times painful. But 15,000+ community members managed to sit down and craft comprehensive plans for their 38 neighborhoods in just a few years and be committed enough to those plans to work and tax themselves for their implementation.

What if we started up a similar process with the goal of a carbon neutral (or carbon negative) Seattle by 2030? Let the neighborhoods (with a little help from the City) define carbon neutral.

As an on-the-ground community organizer I'm thinking a top-down this-is-what-comes-out-of-design professionals-charrettes approach is exactly what is not needed right now. We need the multiplicity of great, quirkly, unexpected, site-specific, and yes even bad ideas to flavor the stew of a vibrant, carbon neutral city.

Show me a plan that can and will be implemented for carbon neutral Laurelhurst and I'll show you a plan doomed to fail in Capitol Hill and South Park.

Posted by: Cathy Tuttle on 10 Jan 10

i support the idea of pinning the targets to 350ppm, as suggested by others, but also it should be pinned to a given quantity of carbon emitted during a given time otherwise you could have vastly different emissions reduction curves and vastly different quantities of total emission over the period.

Posted by: shane on 11 Jan 10

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