Do you believe in magic? There is a certain sense that is what it takes for the Seattle City Council to do what it did on October 3, 2011, when it passed Resolution 31312, which puts the City on the path towards reducing Seattle’s net green house gas emissions level to zero by 2050. The resolution sets interim targets for a range of factors, but the ones that will affect the most residents are:

Sector                                     2020 Targets                                        2030 Target                                  

Transportation:                        14% reduction in passenger VMT            20% reduction in passenger VMT
Building energy:                       8% reduction in residential energy use     20% reduction in residential energy use
Waste:                                    Increase waste diversion rate to 69%      Increase waste diversion rate to 70%
Total GHG emission reduction: 30% reduction in GHG                           58% reduction in GHG

Where did the City get these goals?  They are not derived from thin air.  The City has a history of leadership on climate action, and the City Council believes that if someone doesn’t lead the way, it isn’t going to happen.  So, the City commissioned the Stockholm Environmental Institute to prepare a study that answered the question, what would it take to get to CO2 emissions that were 80% below 1990 levels by 2050?  The report concluded that “while the goal of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 may be considered very ambitious in terms of the required policies, technologies and actions to achieve it, it may no longer represent an adequate target in terms of Seattle doing its part, and setting an example, in confronting the risks of climate change.  An “adequate” reduction goal for 2050 is more likely to involve reduction of at least 90-95% below 1990 levels, if not achieving net zero emissions, which might involve sequestering carbon (in forests, soils, or underground) to compensate for the remaining GHG emissions that are simply too difficult or costly to eliminate.”

So – the City Council has gone all in – it has resolved to join Copenhagen and Melbourne as the only two other cities in the world that have committed to achieving zero net emissions.

Not surprisingly, that will take a lot of change, and no one’s life will go unchanged if the goal is to be achieved. [In fairness, it must be said that no one’s life will go unchanged if the world continues to avoid the GHG issue and falls over a cliff of rising sea levels, lowered snow packs, and the range of other climate change scenarios that scientists predict are likely.]

Seattle starts with one major advantage. Thanks to its hydropower and a long-term focus on efficiency and renewable energy, it is the only major city in the United States that is currently at zero net carbon electricity. But the use of natural gas in buildings and gasoline and diesel for transportation account for the majority of the city’s current GHG emissions.

The changes needed in the transportation sector can be grouped into two categories: 1) reduction in the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and 2) reduction in the green house gas emissions per mile traveled.

Reduction in VMT can happen with some “easy” fixes – like increasing density and making sure that shops, parks, recreation and services are within walking distance of homes. But that is only a beginning. It will also require a massive conversion to transit for commuting, with bicycles as a major additional source of commuting miles traveled. So, expect parking to become scarce and expensive, and expect to see the City putting every available transportation dollar to transit and/or bike lanes.

Reduction of GHG emissions from vehicle miles traveled will come from technology. Plug-in electric vehicles were made for Seattle. Remember that we have zero net emission electricity. And water flows over the dams 24/7, so that there is electricity that is generated in the hours when we sleep. That is when cars can be charged. So expect to see continuing and accelerating efforts to get the infrastructure in place for electric vehicle charging.

Reducing energy use in buildings is more complex. New building design will be increasingly energy-rigorous. But most of the building stock that will exist in 2050 already exists, so there will be a need to do major building retrofits and renovations. Things like district energy and heat pumps may allow some areas of the city to convert to low-carbon or no-carbon heat sources.

There will also need to be new sources of energy supply, including district energy, distributed electricity and biomass energy. The City will need to not only reduce its waste stream, but generate electricity from the methane currently coming from its landfills.

Does that all add up to achieve the goal? And will the public agree to it? Clearly it will require City politicians to expend large amounts of political capital to get the public to go along with the changes that are needed. But then, what do politicians accumulate political capital for? Good luck to them.