Seattle's climate ideas can hurt whole state

There are certainly lessons from Greg Nickels' efforts at leadership on global warming. But what we need to know is very different from what environmentalists tell political leaders in Olympia.
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Then-Mayor Greg Nickels at a CityClub forum. (Seattle Channel)

There are certainly lessons from Greg Nickels' efforts at leadership on global warming. But what we need to know is very different from what environmentalists tell political leaders in Olympia.

Imagine an executive of a major corporation, citing his concern for the environment, highlighting the reduction of 410 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Further, he claimed, while the company'ꀙs emissions were rising, it would change in the future. Finally, he argued, even though the emissions reductions he had achieved were unrelated to his policies, he should get credit for the reductions anyway.

Environmental groups would quickly deride such claims, accusing that company of "greenwashing," and perhaps even call for a boycott.

But that isn't what happened. Environmental groups actually praised such an organization despite its paltry achievements.

What company is this? Greg Nickels' Seattle.

For years, former Seattle Mayor Nickels made much of his tough stance on climate change. The city even tried closing streets to reduce driving and talked of banning beach bonfires to cut carbon emissions. And the mayor's office told kids that climate change might doom Santa during the 2007 Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

But a close look at his legacy demonstrates he failed to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even though Nickels used these policies to bolster his environmental image. Examining the city's web page on climate change and the new Seattle Greenhouse Gas Inventory, released one month before Nickels' term ended, makes clear why.

Touting its successes, the city's climate web page notes that it expanded 'ꀜtransportation choices,'ꀝ including 'ꀜ20,000 hours of new bus service'ꀝ and 'ꀜadded 50 miles of new bike lanes and sharrows.'ꀝ The goal was to reduce the number of miles people drove. Did it work? No.

According to the Seattle Greenhouse Gas Inventory, between 2005 and 2008, the number of miles traveled by cars and light trucks increased. This is remarkable, since the average gas price in 2005 of $2.37 jumped to $3.40 in 2008. Absent this dramatic rise in gas prices, the increase would have been larger. Some may argue that bus ridership increased when the gas prices rose, but ridership also quickly fell when prices fell, and the availability of more buses and bike lanes did little, if anything, to get people out of their cars.

The list of accomplishments notes, "The city reduced citywide fuel consumption by 41,000 gallons, saving 410 tons of greenhouse gases emissions." This sounds like a lot but, in fact, it is barely measurable. Seattle's total transportation emissions for 2008 amounted to 2.7 million metric tons of CO2. Four-hundred-ten tons represent an annual reduction of less than .02 percent. The report doesn't say how much public money Nickels spent to achieve that tiny reduction. That the city mentions such a miniscule savings is emblematic of how desperate Nickels' team was to demonstrate any measurable impact of their policies.

Other policies sound good, but only if we ignore the cost. City officials note they distributed 1.4 million compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), avoiding an estimated 23,000 tons of CO2. Assuming this represents the first year and a half of the program (from June 2007 through 2008) it represents only about 3 percent of all emissions from buildings, and a tiny one-fifth of one percent (.2 percent of) total emissions in Seattle for that period of time.

How much did it cost to achieve these results? According to city officials, taxpayers paid a subsidy of $1.35 for each light bulb, totaling nearly $1.9 million. This amounts to more than $82 for every ton of CO2 avoided. Compare this to the average cost of a ton of carbon on the European Climate Exchange in January of $17.50. Seattle received only one-fifth the greenhouse gas emissions reductions it could have achieved if Nickels had simply used that money to buy carbon credits on the European market. Politics trumped environmental effectiveness. It is more fun to hand out light bulbs than buy intangible carbon credits, even if buying the credits is four times better for the environment.

Other claims are even more political. Under the heading "Community Engagement," city officials boast, "Climate Action Now distributed 10,000 home energy kits" and that "Seattle Climate Partnership membership increased by approximately 110 percent in 2008 — from 53 to 122 members." It highlights the city'ꀙs "leadership," noting that 910 mayors have signed the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. The relationship between these political achievements and actual emissions reductions is speculative at best. But when you have so little else to claim, it doesn't hurt to pad the resume.

Given the ineffectiveness of these strategies, it should not be surprising that Seattle'ꀙs greenhouse gas emissions rose between 2005 and 2008.

The city, for its part, claims that it has already met the emissions reductions in the Kyoto Protocol, and calls for others to do the same. While this is true today, they achieved that goal primarily because homeowners switched from oil to natural gas heating in the 1990s. In recent years, the city's emissions have increased, putting it on a path to violate the Kyoto emissions target of 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Worse, the city's accounting of greenhouse gas emissions actually rewards policies that increase worldwide CO2 emissions. For instance, emissions from steel used in Seattle but manufactured elsewhere don't count in the city's assessment. If the city stopped producing concrete and steel but imported that same amount, city officials would actually count that as a reduction in emissions, even though it would mean a loss of jobs and probably cause an overall increase in global emissions. Since a ton of CO2 emitted in China is equal to a ton emitted in Seattle, the net effect would be worse for climate change, but good for politicians in Seattle looking to claim "leadership" on the issue.

Given this record one can reasonably ask, Where are the environmental groups calling for real action? They are silent, in large part because they are proposing many of these same policies in Olympia. Why would we expect these costly and ineffective policies to do better when adopted statewide?

If we truly care about reducing carbon emissions, Washington should cut taxes on innovation to encourage the technologies that improve energy efficiency. Innovation has always been the driving force behind improvements in environmental sustainability. Unless we act to engage the creativity of engineers, scientists and technology experts across the state, we will continue to spend taxpayer dollars on failed policies that have more to do with making politicians look good than with actually cutting carbon emissions.

The environmental failures of Seattle and Greg Nickels should make that clear.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Todd Myers

Todd Myers

Todd Myers is the director of the Center for the Environment at Washington Policy Center, an organization that advocates for free market solutions to public policy issues.