Exploring a Carbon Neutral City - Notes from Seattle's Unconference

A huge thank you to everyone who came downtown on a blustery morning to participate in last Saturday's unconference on a carbon neutral Seattle!

Carbon neutrality is a simple idea with complicated details: it's hard to define and far-reaching in its implications. Carbon neutrality implies a city that uses no fossil fuels and produces no unused waste - a city where every system functions differently than it does today. Yet the idea of Seattle becoming North America’s first carbon neutral city - and achieving that goal by 2030 - has taken hold. Becoming that city would be a response commensurate to the challenge of global climate change. It would establish Seattle as a global leader in sustainable development, urban innovation, and the burgeoning green economy. Last Saturday's small group of leading thinkers - “a renegade crew of Seattle’s green rock stars” - came together to address the question: 'where do we even start?'

In an energetic and inspiring day, hosted by Mithun, we heard from over 40 presenters and panelists on an amazing range of potential solutions, guiding principles, and significant hurdles. The day's discussion covered understanding regional transportation funding to using art to illuminate our relationship to the planet. From the political, such as the need for political accountability in our State legislature, to the financial, such as the potential of a national infrastructure bank to finance large projects such as light rail. We discussed the challenge of defining 'neutrality' and using meaningful metrics, and the importance of non-local actions such as placing a global price on carbon, to avoid a game, as Sightline's Eric de Place put it, of "carbon whack-a-mole". City Council President Richard Conlin presented the City’s current efforts to promote sustainable urban agriculture, while Cary Moon of the People’s Waterfront Coalition and Joshua Curtis of Great City discussed three steps that could transform how we plan Seattle's future. Participants learned about radical improvements in building efficiency, district-wide green building solutions, and how we design our neighborhoods for better social outcomes. Speakers addressed considerations of equity, both economic and intergenerational. Can climate neutrality be achieved through a system that requires nothing of the extremely poor, allowing those with the means – and the historical responsibility – to pay? How do we involve Seattle’s fourth-graders in our discussions? Today’s 10-year-olds will be our mid-career workforce in 2030. There was discussion on the challenges and responsibilities of journalists who report on climate, with a call for a northwest climate journalism summit.

Space constrains us from writing about every great speaker and idea; you can follow the ongoing conversation via Twitter with the hashtag #0co2. A huge thank you to every one of an incredible lineup of speakers: Alex Steffen, Richard Conlin, Ashley de Forest, Sean Conroe, Rob Harrison, Cameron Hall, Stephanie Pure, Eric de Place, Peter Erickson, Charlie Cunniff, Critter Thompson, Erin Christensen, Brian Geller, Joe Brewer, Anima Lavoy, Lisa Stiffler, Paul Fleming, Cary Moon, Joshua Curtis, Chris Jordan, Ben Beres, Dan Albert, Charles R. Wolfe, Diana Vinh, Liz Dunn, Jesse Kocher, Nate Cole-Daum, Cathy Tuttle, Charles R. Wolfe, Rob Johnson, Jemae Hoffman, Blake Trask, Craig M. Benjamin, Chris Rule, Erica C. Barnett, Mike McGinn, Sol Villareal, Michael Grenetz, Luis Borrero, Sara Nikolic, Roger Valdez, Jill Simmons, and Mike O'Brien!

Three talks anchored the day's events; Alex Steffen's morning opening talk, Mayor McGinn's lunchtime call to action, and Councilmember O'Brien's closing discussion on next steps.

The day kicked off with Worldchanging’s Alex Steffen – who first suggested the goal of carbon neutrality for Seattle last fall – providing context for the day’s conversations. Steffen pointed out that Seattle is in a unique position to pursue this goal, with both a head start in clean energy, thanks to our hydroelectric system, and a global image as an environmental leader that makes our decisions resonate beyond the size of our population or economy. If we're going to do it at all, it should be here, and it has to be now.

In a short lunch-time speech on the politics of transportation and climate, Mayor Mike McGinn laid out how much of our problem is political, not technical. He declared that we have the voters on our side; that we have the data on our side; and that we have the good ideas. So why aren’t we winning? Why do our major transportation investments actually increase our emissions, while our policies say we will reduce them? McGinn’s message was clear: “The politicians in this region don’t care about what we care about – they just don’t.” Politics matter, and McGinn framed the conversation as a division of approaches: the wonks and the hacks. The wonks - the policy and data crowd, believing in the power of a good idea - were definitely the majority in the room. “We need to tap our inner hacks,” the Mayor said, “because we will win or lose this fight in the political realm, not the realm of ideas.” The results we’re getting on our regional transportation future are not about the best solutions, they are an expression of the political will of powerful interests. As McGinn said, "the other side isn't stopping.”

There was a heavy focus throughout the day on transportation, which reflects its central role in our regions discussions on sustainability. Right after McGinn spoke on transportation, a panel of transportation experts and activists, moderated by Publicola’s Erica Barnett, discussed Seattle’s commitment to ‘Walk, Bike, Ride” – a non-auto transportation future. If the region is to achieve any of its sustainability-related goals, we must make make car-free living a realistic option for more people. Building on some of the points made by McGinn, the panel discussed how our spending priorities reveal our values on transportation; how if the Central Business District grows as much as expected, and people continue driving to work at current rates, we'll need 20 blocks of new parking garages; how at current rates of funding, no one alive today will see a completed pedestrian master plan; and how our city funds non-automobile infrastructure with millions of dollars while, the region funds auto infrastructure with billions.

The event culminated in an open discussion, moderated by Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, of the day’s most important details, addressing three significant questions to emerge from the day:

1. The ‘choir question’: how do we expand the discussion in a meaningful way to include a more diverse group of participants?

2. Identifying our principal barriers: what stands in the way of progress toward carbon neutrality?

3. Now what? Where do we go from here, and what are our next steps?

In addressing these three questions, the group identified an array of solutions, ideas, and needs. The principle takeaways were that our combined efforts could be powerful, but we lack tools for coordination and collaboration; that we can include more diverse voices by speaking clearly about the range of benefits associated with carbon neutrality; and that we will not win this fight if we don’t engage the politics and become a movement. We must express our vision with a unified voice, and hold our leaders accountable for its implementation. The full list of ideas generated through the closing session is temporarily available through google docs here. We are in the process of creating a little wiki where this list can be used to generate further discussion.

Saturday was a great beginning to a much larger conversation. The group was unanimous in its desire for more ideas, more interaction, and more momentum. We will follow up the day's events with online resources for communication and collaboration, and will begin planning future events. In the meantime, it is up to all of us to keep these conversations going - here are a few ways to start:

Most importantly, whether you attended the unconference or not, please let us know what you think by filling out this short survey to help us plan for the next conversations.

Check out - and upload - photos from the event.

Read a longer article on the day from Grist.


Sounds like an interesting discussion. I like that the google docs mentioned "strong metrics." I also like that people observed "Understanding human motivation – we have outdated ideas of what motivates people to act or make/accept change"

Now, with these thoughts in mind, which I believe are paramount, and which I think people like Alex Steffen agree with, I almost wonder whether we shouldn't adopt an approach towards these goals that avoids necessarily making "carbon neutrality" its central selling point. Reason being: "carbon neutrality" lacks any great emotional hold on anybody. Nobody is going to spend time bragging to their grandkids about how they achieved "carbon neutrality."

I think, instead, we could talk about "livability," and adopt STRONG METRICS for that, and we could definitely make use of the "walk, bike, ride" hierarchy. And I mean that literally as a hierarchy. Because the less expensive the infrastructure required to accomplish our activities of daily living, the more "livable" a neighborhood (and a city) is, quite literally. And I believe it will turn out, not so coincidentally, that the less resources that neighborhood, city, or region will consume.

So I would say that all these things point in a clear direction: prioritize walkable neighborhoods. Once we've made headway there we can start to worry about more grandiose things, like building bullet trains or something. But start with something very basic, very human-scale, and fairly modest and attainable, but that has real appeal to people, regardless of political ideology, and also has real appeal in terms of reducing environmental impacts.

First, though, before we can "enhance" things, we have to stop the bleed. Before even dreaming of building whole new, walkable neighborhoods according to some kind of grand scheme or other, we need to save the ones we have, as imperfect as they may be. And I would venture to say that even in our best cities, neighborhoods are getting less and less walkable day by day and year by year. I say this as a seven year resident of Portland OR, a city that prides itself on its greenery, but whose livability has steadily eroded by the objective metrics (remember "strong metrics"?) that I'm suggesting for as long as I've lived here.

This then brings me to a concrete proposal for my own city that I'm trying to promote, but which I think could be adapted and adopted almost anywhere in the US. (Hmm, I wonder if anybody is already doing anything like this?): http://www.trimetriders.org/greenwash-vs-livability

Posted by: Guy Berliner on June 25, 2010 3:55 AM

yeah!!! It is clear that there is a ton of exciting work being done locally to promote ideas around cities and climate change. Fostering an integrated discussion about how we can help Seattle reach a shared goal of climate neutrality is a key first step. Let’s keep the conversation going...

Posted by: cocina gourmet on July 27, 2010 6:03 AM

Seattle as a model city for carbon neutral cities would be a grand step forward in sustainability. As I was reading the post one suggestion that crossed my mind is one that Guy had mentioned in his post which is this need to start out in neighborhoods and then expand. Starting out in a smaller area would provide an area to do feasibility analysis for adaptation on a larger scale and if successful it would be a good tool to get politicians, city leaders and community members to support the expansion. A carbon neutral city might also create a hub for entrepreneurs as more products are likely to be created locally to reduce carbon use in shipping. Marketing the concept will also have to be a huge factor, the public will have to be on board which I think starting on a small scale and showing that it works will be a huge benefit to this project.

Posted by: Lisa Stensby on August 3, 2010 9:29 PM

Post A Comment

Please note that, while disagreement is fine, insults and abuse are not, and will result in the comment being deleted and a likely ban from commenting.

Yes No