Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Seattle as North America's First Carbon-Neutral City

by Alex Steffen, 23 Nov 09

Article Photo
Last week, I stood on the stage at Seattle's Town Hall and called on Seattle to become North America's first carbon-neutral city, dropping its per capita climate emissions to nothing by 2030.

Since then, I've gotten a whole slew of great emails and calls from people who are thinking that goal through, and have questions. Mostly, folks have been wildly supportive, generally wanting most to know how they can help build the movement to do that. I'm a writer, not an organizer, and I don't have the plan, but I can explain a little more my thinking, and share some observations about what seems to be needed right now. Hopefully those will help.

The timing and target come from the now-common observation that we need to aspire to return the level of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 ppm. In order to do that, we need to at very least level off at 450 ppm mid century. To do that, while billions of young people in the developing world rise out of poverty (and escape the problems of poverty), we need to create a new bright green model of prosperity, one that can be shared equitably and sustainably by all. For that model to be widely adopted by 2050, I reckon, we need to have it up and running by 2030. Because of the vastly unequal distribution of formal research and innovation capacity in the world, because of the developed world's near-complete responsibility for the climate problems we already face and because of the central role of cities in climate action, that model needs to come from the wealthier cities of the Global North. We have to invent that model and be living it in 20 years.

Building bright green cities: that's the great moral and political challenge of our day. That is our generation's Abolition, our era's World War Two. If we can achieve this, we'll provide component innovations, new mental models and more time for billions of people around the world to blaze their own trails to their own new models of prosperity. We'll address the major causes of planetary environmental destruction, relieve the suffering of hundreds of millions of people and protect the rights of future generations -- all while improving our own lives and preparing our region for the economy of the 21st century. This isn't just a win-win proposition, it's the possibility of multi-dimensional, cascading, feedback-loops full of win.

The only "non-win" about it is that it will involve change -- not sacrifice, because all the evidence suggests that most people's lives will improve; and not expense, because all of the steps we need to take return more money than we'll spend, over time (and if it makes money it's not a cost, it's an investment). Of course, people hate change. Most people want everything to stay exactly the way it was about 10 or 20 years ago; and the idea of plunging forward into a future of dramatic transformations makes many people grumpy, and a few downright psychotic.

Of course, change is the only given; and when it comes to our collision with planetary boundaries, our choice isn't whether to change or not, it's whether to act or be acted upon by vast forces we're unleashing as a consequence of our way of living today. Our current way of living is toast in either case, and will vanish within the next few decades; the only question is, what will replace it? Will our way of living be followed by millennia of ecological impoverishment, increased human suffering and diminished cultural possibilities; or will it be followed by a better way of life, one that prevents catastrophic collisions with ecological reality, and leaves us (and billions of others) wealthier, healthier and happier? That's the only real choice we have in front of us.

Now, we are really and truly on terra incognita here. No one knows exactly what a carbon-neutral North American city would look like, or what the best, fastest routes there will turn out to be. There is no map for these territories, and we'll need to cultivate an attitude of experimentation, innovation and learning as we go.
Even some of the most basic questions will demand debate: How do we define carbon-neutrality? What do we include in our carbon footprint and what do we leave out? How much can we ethically rely on offsets or other "shifted changes" to make up for the damage caused by some of our existing systems that are very slow to change? How do we wrest away the regulatory authority and fiscal capacity to make these changes, in the face of what has already been determined opposition from those industries most invested in continued ecological destruction? How do we envision the end result and help our fellow citizens connect to it as a goal? The questions go on...

But developing answers to those questions in ways that make sense in our context is part of the model we're trying to create: the conversation about change is itself part of the change we seek. Indeed, having made the case for this shift to those in our own region who are skeptical (or in some cases, directly hostile) is part of what will arm other cities, in different contexts, with information and insight to build their own cases for change. All of this is hard work, but it isn't wasted labor.

The most important part is the standard: if any sustainability plan we find ourselves discussing isn't hammering out a pathway built of measured steps and leading to zero impact in a definable and relatively immediate time-frame, it's just no longer good enough. I think zero carbon emissions by 2030 (with the interim goals of 10 percent immediate cuts and a 50 percent reduction in the next 10 years) makes sense. Others may differ. The important point is that we stop investing energy in small steps that cannot add up to the large leaps we know we need to make, and stop accepting modest (or even lame) goals as sufficient.

In fact, I'm increasingly suspicious of any proposal to make something less unsustainable, rather than following a measured path to zero impact. Surrounded by a global leadership culture that values above all else civic incrementalism, compromise and moderation (sometimes for very good reasons), many of us tend to assume that progress is gradual and that steps in the right direction are at very least a good start. But that thinking is dysfunctional for the times in which we find ourselves. We need (for really direct and documented reasons) bold, rapid action and the completion of goals on a strict timetable. If any particular action can't make a case for itself as part of a bold and rapid shift, I increasingly suspect it's a sparkly distraction, not a stepping stone.

That absolutely does not mean that everything we do must be perfect, or even produce a specific measurable impact. Steps that are specific and limited, but lead nonetheless to a larger goal are great, even if they alone won't solve the whole problem. Compact fluorescents will not save the planet, but they clearly lead to reduced energy usage, and so there's nothing wrong with encouraging their uptake as part of a march towards zero emissions in twenty years.

Even more important are cultural actions. All of the largest barriers to bright green innovation are cultural and conceptual, not technical. The technical challenges of implementation are pretty huge, but they can't be faced at all without changing the way at least an active core of people see these issues. What does a zero-impact society look like? What is the definition of prosperity? What actually makes us happy? What parts of our lives already fail to work as advertised, and what would it feel like to transform them? How would we live in this new world?

These are questions that, fundamentally, we can only tackle through art and design, creative inquiry and intellectual exploration, conversation and media. We need a movement of people engaged in this work. For while it's true that changing attitudes alone is not enough, inspired minds driving forward a cause is the only formula for real change that has ever worked: free your mind, and your ass will follow.
Free your mind, Seattle.

Image credit: Craig Allen, CC