While Seattle residents inhaled unhealthy air laden with smoke from nearby wildfires, Mayor Bruce Harrell addressed a conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on ways that cities can mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Alongside the mayors of New Orleans and Copenhagen, Harrell discussed the importance of using an equity lens to analyze how poorer communities and people of color are more likely to be affected by bad water quality, asthma, air pollution and extreme weather events. However, he was light on solutions, touting the importance of heat pumps to shift house heating away from fossil fuels and turning community centers and libraries into publicly accessible “resiliency hubs” that include air conditioners and other climate change adaptations.
He neglected to address what the city’s own Office of Sustainability & Environment (OSE) identified as Seattle’s largest source of climate-change-causing emissions: transportation.
A new OSE report released on Oct. 17 focused on “core” emissions produced in the city itself, including those in the transportation sector, which accounted for 61.1 percent of emissions; buildings and especially heating, which accounted for 36.8 percent; and waste, which accounted for 2.1 percent. The analysis did not focus on industrial emissions from the cement, steel and glass factories located within the city, which are mainly regulated at the state and federal levels.
According to the report, total core Seattle emissions declined by 17.3 percent between 2018 and 2020. The majority of this decline was due to a 24.5 percent reduction in transportation emissions due to more people working from home during the COVID-19 emergency. There was also a substantial decrease in freight truck emissions and a smaller reduction in emissions from commercial buildings, due to businesses being forced to close during the pandemic.
This signals that, while there was a significant decline in greenhouse gas emissions in Seattle, much of it was temporary and has reversed as more people return to work in person and commercial activity resumes.
OSE Climate Data and Policy Manager Ani Krishnan said that this temporary, coronavirus-related emissions decrease wasn’t meaningless. Instead, it could serve as a roadmap for reductions in the future.
“It’s a demonstration saying that, hey, we know this can work,” Krishnan said.
Krishnan said that the bulk of emissions come from just three sources: private vehicles, freight trucks and Puget Sound Energy, which provides gas and oil heating to buildings in the city. He said that initiatives such as better building standards, programs that subsidize people to switch their heating source to electricity, increased proliferation of electric vehicles (EVs) and incentives to get companies to switch from diesel to electric trucks could help reduce emissions. He also said that an increase in EVs and more fuel-efficient cars contributed to about a 5 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per vehicle miles traveled.
Seattle also has a major asset in its fight against climate change — its reliance on non-carbon-intensive electricity.
“Other cities across the country, they don’t have … a net carbon-neutral grid from Seattle City Light,” Krishnan said. “This is an asset that we absolutely have to leverage in order to get us to our emissions reduction targets. So, electrification is essentially a really big and important piece of the strategy for both of these sectors.”
Krishnan also said that other policies that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions include rezoning single-family areas of the city to allow for more density and improving infrastructure for walking, biking and public transport.
The report shows that, ultimately, much more work needs to be done in order to meet Seattle’s relatively unambitious 2050 climate neutrality goal — one that many climate scientists say is too little, too late to avert catastrophic global warming and climate change.
Seattleites are already familiar with the effects of inaction on their daily lives.
While Harrell was busy in South America, Seattle’s more than 750,000 residents were experiencing the climate emergency head-on with smoke from wildfires making the air the most hazardous of any city in the world. According to the website Airnow.gov, Seattle averaged an Air Quality Index of 179, meaning that the air was so hazardous that all people were encouraged to not stay outside for extended periods of time. Unfortunately, thousands of people without adequate housing or shelter do not have that luxury.
According to the Seattle Times, this type of “smoke season” is a very new phenomenon in Washington west of the Cascades; the first such season occurred in 2017. It is almost inarguable that climate change, and the increasingly drier summers it is causing in the Pacific Northwest, directly contributes to the new trend.
Will the city’s leadership start aligning its priorities with climate science? It’s hard to say. But if there is any hope for less smoky skies, faster greenhouse gas emission reductions are in order.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Oct. 26-Nov. 1, 2022 issue.