Save yourself from pre-ordering the history book for 2019 because I can sum it up in one sentence: Too many people wanted too much stuff for carbon emissions to stop rising.
Assuming the Earth’s population continues to grow at present rates, the choice facing the climate movement is whether we can encourage people to want less stuff, or whether we can make all of that stuff without a corresponding rise in global temperatures?
At this point, it’s a rhetorical question, but it’s also becoming an academic one.
Father Time and Mother Nature have teamed up with The Fates to brew up a storm unlike any seen in millions of years, and time is running out to throw a monkey wrench into their plans.
I feel like I’m reliving the campy Batman series of my childhood, in which the caped crusader dramatically extinguishes the bomb at the last possible momentto escape the evil designs of The Penguin or The Joker.
I doubt we will ever be able to convince consumers in a capitalist society or emerging economy to want less stuff. They might be forced to cut their carbon emissions eventually, but as long as advertising and social statuses exist,there’s always going to be a race to sell you somethingto make you feel better, look better, appear wealthier, and so on.
So that leaves us with an experiment in wrenches. Fortunately, I’m living in one of the marquee locations in America to see if we can make this carbon emissions experiment succeed.
Seattle Has Been Counting Its Carbon Emissions
Seattle is not only one of the top cleantech hubs, but the city has been tracking its carbon emissions in every sector of its local economy for years. It checks off pretty much every green box imaginable, from multi-family recycling and composting to green roofs on city-owned buildings. It evenadopted its Climate Action Policy in 2013, focusing on road transportation, building energy and waste sectors.
Last week, the City’s Office of Sustainability released its latest inventory of the total greenhouse gas emissions from cars, buildings, and industry as part of its effort to achieve a 50 percent reduction in carbon pollution by 2030 and zero emissions by 2050. The report was clear: while the city is paddling in the right direction, it needs to exchange the paddles for a powerful emission free motor.
To their credit, Seattlites are doing their best to bend the carbon emissions curve. Since 2008, per-person emissions have declined 20 percent, and while population has increased over the same period by 18 percent and employment by 16 percent, total emissions declined 5 percent.
Per-person transportation emissions also declined, as did the per-person usage of building energy and emissions from waste.
In most cities, this would be cause for laudatory news releases and celebrations, but unfortunately, our atmosphere doesn’t trap greenhouse gasses based on a per-person basis.
Measurement Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Management
Once you pull back the telescope lens to see a wider picture of Seattle’s carbon emissions ecosystem that includes all modes of transportation like air travel, the industrial and manufacturing sector and building and industrial equipment, a decidedly less rosy picture emerges.
With air travel emissions (+17%) and industrial use of oil and natural gas (+26%) increasing in just the two most recent years of the inventory, Seattle’s overall greenhouse gas emissions have only dropped 4 percent since 2008. At that pace, Seattle’s carbon emissions will be reduced by only 10 percent by mid-century, a far cry from the ambitious goal called for in the city’s Climate Action Plan.
Where To From Here?
Passenger vehicles emit 53 percent of all of Seattle’s carbon emissions. Unless that slice of the pie becomes significantly cleaner, we might see melting Arctic ice in Puget Sound sooner than later. While the authors of the report tried to put some lipstick on this pig in places, they were brutally honest in writing:
While absolute emissions have remained relatively unchanged from 2014, per-resident emissions reduced by 4% between 2014 and 2016. Seattle’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) set a target of reducing passenger vehicle emissions by 82% over a 2008 baseline. In order to reach this target, Seattle requires an annual emissions reduction of roughly 7.5% in this sector from 2008 to 2030. So far, the City has managed just a 0.2% annual emissions reduction rate from 2008 to 2016. Annual passenger vehicle emissions will need to reduce by about 11.4% from 2016 onwards to meet the CAP goal.
In one paragraph, the authors have summed up how difficult it will be to achieve the meaningful emissions reductions called for by 2030 in the city’s Climate Action Plan and to achieve what’s required globally. While taking significant steps over the last decade, Seattle’s businesses and residents will need to move 11 times faster than they have since 2008.A few more miles per gallon in fuel efficiency isn’t going to cut it.
And this is how one of the greenest cities in America is tackling climate change. Is it any wonder that carbon emissions have increased globally?
Seattle and the rest of the nation must fundamentally reimagine its transportation system.
Massive investments in electric vehicle infrastructure and upgraded transit are no longer just options; they are a necessity — and fast! The good news is that technology is here; it just needs to be deployed.
People, even greenies, are not going to stop flying. We have elderly parents to take care of and kids to send off to college as well as the periodic family vacation, so we better scale up cleaner jet fuels or batteries powerful enough to electrify our commercial airlines.
Companies that make things from toys to textiles, and those who mine things necessary to make smartphones and cement need alternative sources of fuel to power their businesses which are cost-competitive and readily available at scale because we aren’t going back to the rotary dial age.
Even monkey wrenches aren’t worth much if they emit more greenhouse gasses than they save.
It’s true that cities are only one lens through which to observe greenhouse gasses, but it’s an instructive one. The good news is people are becoming more aware of their carbon footprints and acting accordingly where they can.
The bad news is we haven’t disconnected the link between consumerism and climate change, even in the most environmentally sensitive communities. I fear that genie was let out of the bottle with Adam Smith,leaving us with a more profound question: is our instinct for survival greater than the sum of our purchases?