Seattle reports milestone in cutting emissions

By Warren Cornwall
Seattle Times environment reporter

Seattle is one of the first major U.S. cities to claim it has cut greenhouse-gas emissions enough to meet the targets of the international Kyoto treaty aimed at combating global warming.

The achievement, at a time when the city has enjoyed a boom in population and jobs, sets Seattle apart both from the nation as a whole and other cities that have seen greenhouse gases soar in recent years.

But keeping a lid on such emissions in the future means confronting one of the city’s most intractable problems: how to get people out of their cars and driving less.

While overall greenhouse-gas emissions fell by 8 percent between 1990 and 2005 — the most recent data available — the amount attributed to transportation rose 3 percent, due largely to more gas slurped up by cars, according to a draft report issued by the city on Monday.

“This is a remarkable milestone that shows how cities can lead the way in the fight against global warming,” Mayor Greg Nickels said. “But it is just the start of our work.”

Although critics say trying to meet the Kyoto targets nationwide would hurt the economy without solving global warming, supporters call it a critical first step toward much deeper reductions needed to slow or even reverse the warming.

Seattle’s reductions were largely the result of energy conservation by households and businesses, and changes in power production at Seattle City Light, the report said.

The announcement was a triumph for Nickels, who has made climate change a cornerstone of his administration and hosts a global-warming conference of U.S. mayors this week.

Nickels has lobbied the nation’s mayors to sign a pledge promising to meet the Kyoto Protocol’s target of cutting greenhouse gases to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. More than 650 mayors have joined the movement, which is aimed partly at pressuring the federal government to join the international treaty.

The Bush administration has opposed the treaty, which doesn’t restrict emissions from developing countries such as China and India that are among major sources of greenhouse gases. In 1999, the U.S. Senate voted 95-0 against the treaty.

The reductions in emissions from homes, cars and factories in Seattle can’t be credited to the citywide climate-change plan, which Nickels unveiled in 2006.

The City Council first passed a resolution adopting the Kyoto goals in 2001, before Nickels took office.

Part of the cuts are due to changes in power production at Seattle City Light, which provides clean-running hydropower to homes and businesses.

“We have the good fortune of owning our own utility,” said Steve Nicholas, head of the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment.

City Light says its operations now produce no net greenhouse gases. Since 1990, the utility sold its part-ownership in a coal-fired power plant in Centralia and stopped buying power from a natural-gas plant in Klamath Falls, Ore. Both plants produce greenhouse gases.

City Light also has embarked on more aggressive conservation measures and bought greenhouse-gas offsets — essentially paying someone else to stop polluting as much — to make up for emissions from sources such as its utility trucks.

Another share of the drop came from homeowners and businesses switching from fuel oil to cleaner-burning natural gas to heat buildings, something city officials attributed largely to market forces rather than city policies.

The city was helped temporarily by a drop in 2005 emissions from the two cement plants along the Duwamish River. Those plants account for almost a seventh of the city’s greenhouse gases, and their emissions fell by more than 160,000 metric tons.

But that reduction could evaporate, since those plants were expected to boost production after 2005, Nicholas said.

For now, Monday’s report puts Seattle ahead of other U.S. cities leading the push to curb greenhouse gases — notably Portland, which has been working on the issue since 1993.

Portland and Multnomah County have seen a gradual drop in greenhouse-gas emissions since 2000, and levels are hovering near 1990 levels.

Unlike Seattle, Portland gets power from two investor-owned utilities that generate greenhouse gases. The city also doesn’t count offsets, which are controversial because some people question whether the claimed pollution reductions are real.

But Portland has shown more progress on the transportation front, where emissions are at almost the same level as 1990, and have been dropping in recent years.

Seattle has started trying to lure people from their cars. Two tax measures approved by voters in 2006 are aimed at improving bus service, bike lanes and sidewalks.

The city also has passed development rules to encourage people to move downtown, where they will drive less, said Nicholas, with the Office of Sustainability and Environment.

But Nicholas said the city will need to do more if it wants to keep greenhouse gases from creeping up, particularly as Seattle’s population grows.

Outgoing City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck said Monday’s report is welcome news.

But he said the city also needs to take more aggressive steps to stem the growth of car traffic.

He mentioned the proposed replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a similar structure, or an underground roadway, as an example of continued emphasis on cars.

“My concern here is that while the news is good, it shouldn’t put us at ease in any way. We are working against time,” he said.

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