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Carbon Neutrality as Opportunity
Alex Steffen, 14 Mar 10


As you may have gathered, the idea of city-wide carbon neutrality by 2030 has gained a lot of steam here in Worldchanging's home base of Seattle. Our City Council has embraced it as a goal (though it's wrestling with the timeline) and some of our smartest people are wrestling with what carbon neutrality might mean and how it might be accomplished.

Eric de Place offered one set of concerns here last week, exploring the example of Copenhagen -- which at this point has the world's most ambitious urban climate goal of carbon neutrality by 2025 -- and asking some tough questions about Seattle's plans.

Copenhagen, he notes correctly, does not have a plan to achieve zero emissions -- as far as I know, no city has a plan for that. What Copenhagen has a plan for is to achieve zero net emissions, meaning that when you balance everything its people do, you come out with carbon neutrality. To do this, Copenhagen relies on offsetting actions, or offsets, to balance out the greenhouse gasses that Copenhageners will still be emitting in 15 years.

Copenhagen uses offsets, to my understanding, to balance things that fall in one of two categories: the last emissions from big, slow systems they're not sure they can completely change in just 15 years (for example, even in a city which has declared independence from the car, some cars will still be in use, and some of those cars will still be driven by internal combustion engines in 15 years), and emissions over which they have no direct control (for example, offshored emissions coming from consumr goods manufactured in other nations). To balance those emissions, they're adopting best practices in offsetting. This is a sign not of hypocrisy, but honesty: Copenhagen is attempting to take responsibility for all of its emissions, and making up for those that are beyond its control to change in 15 years. The end result is the same.

Eric rightly points out that if Seattle were to slash its emissions in half in the by 2030, we'd still emit something like three times as many greenhouse gasses as Copenhagen will in 2025, and offseting those emissions could come with a high price tag (he estimates $60 million a year for Seattle if we purchased those offsets on the open market for roughly $20/ ton). "That’s a lot of money," he says. "And it’s an open question, at least to my mind, whether achieving 'carbon neutrality' for a specific city for a specific point in time would really the best use of that money."

And here's where Eric and I differ in several ways. I see carbon neutrality as a necessary goal in and of itself. Many people, including Bill Gates, think we need the entire developed world to be carbon neutral by 2050 in order to reach a worldwide reduction in emissions of 80% by that time. I think that 80% reduction is an insufficient goal, but leaving that argument aside, if we want carbon neutrality in the developed world by 2050, then we need leading cities to hit that goal decades earlier to create the innovation paths others can follow.

Just as importantly, however, I see carbon neutrality as a huge opportunity. Urban climate action offers us a fabulous tool chest, presenting solutions to all sorts of other problems we want to solve as well, from a flagging economy to energy vulnerability to mounting health care costs. Overall, I think Eric's missed a few key points:

1. I'm not at all sure that a 50% reduction of our emissions footprint is the best we can do (or frankly, even something we ought to think is "worth shouting from the green rooftops" as Eric says). It is certainly technically possible for us to do much, much better. We already have the technology and design capacity to get 80-90% improvements in many fields, especially in green building. And technology is improving extremely rapidly. Twenty years ago, most of us didn't have the Internet or cell phones (to note a commonplace example of technological change); we ought to anticipate improved ability to solve some problems we don't now know how to address.

2. Because we run our city on hydroelectricity and live in a mild climate, Seattle's biggest problem is cars. Cars and trucks are the largest source of our greenhouse gas emissions. Our city's auto-dependence is often treated as a fact of nature by older commentators, and when they acknowledge the problem of auto emissions at all, they tend to claim electric cars will fix the problem. Unfortunately, electric cars won't solve auto emissions, and (as we've explored on this site scores of times) won't even come close to solving the massive non-tailpipe auto-related emissions that come from road building and other auto infrastructure, air- and water-pollution, increased health care costs and so on.

No, the solution to the problem of cars is to build a better city. We could use the new growth that we know is coming our way, and use it to make all our neighborhoods compact, deeply walkable, and sustainable (for one home-grown vision of sustainability, check out New Energy Hubs) This is entirely within our power. The idea that Seattle can't do this is silly; the idea that Seattleites refuse to do this is 20 years out of date. We can, and should, remake our city to promote urban quality of life, sustainable systems and freedom from the car. Given how rapidly our region is changing, I think two decades, wisely used, could mean a city that's unrecognizably better.

3. This isn't charity. Though of course we want to do the right thing, the reasons for achieving carbon neutrality are as practical as they are ethical:

* Many of the kinds of things we need to do to reduce our carbon footprint will also make us more resilient in the face of the energy shocks and rapid climate change we know are headed our way. Many of the changes we want to see in our urban fabric and infrastructure can also be thought of as insurance against a chaotic future.

* The U.S. will likely see massive economic benefits from a national climate strategy, but whether or not American conservatives agree, climate action isn't really a choice, economically: the world is moving quickly towards a low-carbon economy. As a city heavily linked to international trade and competing in global technology and design markets, if Seattle wants to stay economically strong, we must stay at the forefront of sustainable design, clean technology and green urbanism (no matter what else the rest of the country does). When you add the direct economic development benefits of moving to a bright green economy, climate neutrality is smart economic policy.

* There's a huge brand advantage for our metropolitan region in carbon neutrality. This is completely non-trivial. This region spends millions every year promoting itself as a place to do business, to visit on vacation, to pick for hosting conventions, and so on. Our economic future depends in part on how many bright young people decide to move here and/or stay. In an era of super-liquid capital, our ability to launch successful start-ups, to market export goods, even to secure funding for large projects depends on others seeing us as an innovative place (lest we fall into a branding version of the Ninja Gap). A big portion of our regional economy depends on people thinking highly of us: leadership in carbon neutrality (and all the innovation it will spur) will accelerate a region brand of green, smart and beautiful.

* Many of the things we want to do to go climate neutral, when done right, offer huge benefits in other areas: a climate-neutral Seattle would have cleaner air, longer-lived citizens, healthier kids (who suffer less from obesity and asthma), better diets, lower health-care costs, less isolated seniors, more affordable housing and transportation choices, stronger communities and so on. A whole fleet of studies has been done on the non-environmental benefits of climate action: all of those benefits would apply here, too. If we are carbon neutral, we will be a better place to live.

4. We almost certainly won't be able to eliminate all emissions, and will end up wanting to offset our remaining climate footprint: again, this is not a sign of hypocrisy, but of honest accounting. But here's the thing: only a fool would just buy those offsets on the open market, when so many things we want to do for other reasons (but don't think we can currently afford) present themselves as offset investments in our immediate surroundings.

Take just one category of offsets: securing carbon sinks. There are a whole bunch of things we want to do for other reasons that could help us draw down large amounts of carbon over time, and there's no reason why we shouldn't count these investments as offsets. Think of improving our city's watershed on the Cedar River, and improving the habitat around it; think of securing our city's foodshed and preserving regional agricultural land that not only grows local food but practices climate-friendly farming (including projects that return carbon to farm soils and improve the carbon uptake of rangelands; think of practicing sustainable forestry throughout Western Washington (perhaps even on a community-supported model; think of preparing for climate change and rising sea levels by practicing climate-adaptive wetland restoration now, and increasing the area of estuaries and riparian habitats. The list goes on and on, and these are just offsets dealing with carbon sinks and land use. Using offset money to fund these actions would, of course, yield other benefits as well, from preserving ecosystem services to recreating viable rural economies.

It's not that Eric's cautions are wrong: Eric's one of Seattle's smartest sustainability thinkers; I pay close attention to everything he says, and he makes important points here. Is critical, however, that in thinking of solutions to our problems, we don't fall into the habits of mind that caused those problems. If we try to solve our sustainability problems one at a time, and measure the benefits of the solutions only narrowly and directly, we will fail: if we seek to act boldly, based on the best, most comprehensive understanding of the costs and benefits we can find, then we have a shot at changing the world. Think big, think connected, think ahead and climate action becomes a landscape of opportunity.

(For more background on how Seattle can go carbon-neutral, see the Seattle Talks I gave in November.)
(Photo credit.)

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Thank you for bringing up the economic argument for making Seattle THE innovation hub for the future green economy. This is exactly the case I've been making throughout the city since you gave those two inspiring talks last November.

Yesterday, my team at Seattle Innovators hosted an event where we began to develop tools for cross-sector collaboration in order to build the innovation ecosystem that will be needed to keep our region's economy strong in the coming decades.

This is what carbon neutral is really about. By taking the lead in a way that utilizes our most precious resource - the creative talents of our people - we will have "early mover" advantage and be able to export solutions for the low-carbon economy to other places in the world.

But we have to start now.


Joe Brewer
Project Coordinator
Seattle Innovators

Posted by: Joe Brewer on 14 Mar 10

Good article Alex.
I feel that if countries focus on low carbon/carbon neutral solutions for the big footprints like the automobile industry and the aviation industry, we can go a long way to achieving that goal.

Posted by: FF on 15 Mar 10

With regard to offsets, it's somewhat complicated under the UN's current formulation. That is, offset projects must meet the criteria of additionality. Projects must be economically unfeasible but for the income derived from the offset. Actions such as reforesting a watershed, for example, might be ecologically beneficial, but if they don't generate positive income, or would have been done anyways (e.g., out of civic virtue) they don't count as carbon offsets, and don't contribute to neutrality.

This makes it difficult to create bona fide carbon offset projects in the developed world: land, labor, and energy costs are generally much higher than in developing nations, and the resources can usually be put to more profitable use in some other endeavor.

More on additionality here:

Posted by: xtophr on 15 Mar 10

Moreover, an organization may not create carbon credits for private consumption; credits must be purchased on an open market to count toward neutrality goals. So, while Seattle could feasibly create a carbon sequestration project, it would still have to purchase credits through an exchange, essentially transferring them from one set of books to another. A problem arises when the cost of creating the credit exceeds the market value of the credit, which again, is a likely scenario in developed countries. This presents developed nations with a conundrum: they will likely find it cheaper to purchase credits than to reduce local polution. While CO2 reduction is the global goal, there are many other and perhaps more pressing local concerns: soot from coal-fired plants, effluents, etc.

Posted by: xtophr on 15 Mar 10

Thanks for the comments Xtopher.

But who says that Seattle (or any other city) needs to participate in a UN offsetting program or worry about purchasing carbon credits? I think it'd be crazy to worry about additionality as defined by the UN when the accounting that matters is internal: there's no real benefit to worrying about carbon credits when a municipality is already going far beyond the norm. Certainly sending massive amounts of money to some third party to invest in more wind energy (or biodigesters or participate in a CDM project or tropical rain forest preservation) is a lot more difficult to defend to taxpayers than doing something that we wanted to do anyways, but that we might have a hard time justifying the funds for without the additional carbon sequestration benefits. In short, I don't buy it.

Seattle (and other cities) can (should) define neutrality on their own terms, as long as they're willing to stand up in public and make those terms clear, and keep open books about how well they're doing on the way. No one needs the permission of the carbon markets to do the right thing.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 15 Mar 10

Eric de Place makes the following clarification:

"I may write a longer response at some point, but first I've got one defensive-sounding nitpick: I did not say that Seattle cutting it's emissions by 50 percent is the best we can do.

Far from it! For many of the reasons Alex's mentions, it's conceivable that Seattle (or any city, really) could do much better.

What I said was that if the city could do that in the next 20 years, then it would be worth "shouting from the green rooftops." And I stand by that. With an electricity supply that is already essentially carbon free, cutting emissions by a further 50 percent in Seattle by 2030 would be a feat worthy of celebration."

Fair enough. Hope to see that longer response!

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 15 Mar 10

Nice piece, big challenges - let's get to it.

With regard to the problem of cars, I agree we need to build a more compact city and put more emphasis on walkability, bicycling, and transit - but while we're at I also invite each of us to take a look at our daily transportation choices with curiosity and resourcefulness.

What creative possibilities hove into view when we look beyond our assumptions? Undrivers are asking, What would it take to bicycle to work even in the rain? Is the bus really less convenient? Do I really need a car for that trip? Does my neighbor need to go to the store today too? Who could I trade with to get my kids to school so I could bike or bus two days a week? Might it work to telecommute some of the time? The Undriver Licensing program engages people to consider questions like these - and when they design an experiment for themselves, 72% discover an alternative to driving that works for them. Yes, let's remodel our city - and also our own thinking and daily choices.

Julia Field

Posted by: Julia Field on 16 Mar 10

It's a very good article Alex, and I like the way the discussion on a "net-zero" emission city is evolving here at world changing. I especially like the parallel discussion that you are having on these pages about building resilient cities and highlighting that carbon neutrality should overlap with building resilience.

Here's an even broader discussion: You have had a few entries at WC discussing how can we finance a transition to bright green cities in an era chaos in our financial systems.... I would like to see more explorations of this. For all practical purposes, our civilization now projects its plans into the future though financing mediated by large lending institutions. We seem to have the dilemma of needing to "build a better city" in an era of massive public, private and corporate debt. This unfortunately matters. What is our messaging around the utility of "net zero" cities going to be in the (somewhat likely IMHO) occurence of a double-dip depressionary recession where 20-30% of people are unemployed as the "consumer-based" economy really tanks?

It seems to me that we as greens need some broad senario planning on getting to "net-zero". A part of the path might include bright green jobs and technologies that are high-tech like solar panels and LEED plantinum buildings, but we might equally need dark green jobs that inhabit the informal economy, urban farming, salvage, re-purposing of already built architecture.

I think our future is unfortunatly so tenuous at this point that we cant be ideological about what is going to happen or work in getting to "net zero".

Thanks for your work.

Posted by: Bill Reiswig on 17 Mar 10

Alex: We have to go to carbon negative in order to get any control of the climate crisis. This can be done by using pyrolysis fired by renewable energy on the massive ever-growing messes of organic wastes and sewage solids to make charcoal and organic chemicals. The charcoal can be used as a soil amendment, and the organic chemicals as renewable fuel or as raw materials to make drugs etc.. A company, Eprida, set up by Danny Day, who was cited in Nov, 2009 Atlantic Monthly, is trying to develop this and is getting a pilot plant going. A big added benefit from using pyrolysis on the messes is the destroying of germs, toxics and drugs to greatly reduce escapes causing water pollution. EPA has just announced setting of limits on several drugs showing up in drinking water, so we better get the ounce of prevention action going. If a serious water pollution problem arises, it may take a ton of cure so I hope that you and readers here will start calling for a federal agency to develop waste strategies. In the UK, its Dept. of Environ., Farms and Rural Affairs, DEFRA, already has such an agency. Dr. J. Singmaster, Fremont, CA

Posted by: Dr. James Singmaster on 24 Mar 10

I think putting a price on our earth makes perfect sense given that we have accepted the predominance of capitalism and the market economy. I think that as this happens, the economic as well as mental transition toward green can happen rapidly.

Get in touch with wind energy - fly a kite

Posted by: Thirdcoastkites on 4 May 10

good post alex.... i think you made a good point... and carbon neutral solutions are today's need for future's survival .... and FF is also right that the primary focus must be the industries with big carbon footprint: Energy sector, automobile sector , aviation sector are to name a few...

Posted by: Runka on 6 May 10

I guess there have been no real measures taken after all other than some toll free numbers . Everything is getting clear now after all. I always had a thought in my mind whether these so called people saviors called the politicians were really intending to help the world or at least Copenhagen from destruction but I guess that is not the matter after all. However, I must say that whether measures have been taken or not, the health conditions of the living beings there have already been affected!

Posted by: Michelle on 8 Oct 10

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