If there is a poster child for sustainability in local government, Mike O’Brien thinks the city of Seattle might be it.
Maybe that’s because for decades this coastal city of 635,000 has branded itself as a center for environmental stewardship and social innovation. Faced with the threat of sea-level rise, which could inundate large swaths of the city in the coming decades, and diminishing snowpack in the surrounding mountains, which threatens the region’s source of water and hydroelectric power, the city in 2013 updated its plan to become carbon neutral by 2050 and protect its infrastructure from the likely effects of global warming.
While many cities were working to convince their citizens that climate change was a legitimate concern, Seattle voters took it upon themselves by electing O’Brien to the Seattle City Council in 2010. The former chairman of the Washington State Sierra Club and vocal opponent of a major highway expansion project, based mostly on concerns over emissions, O’Brien didn’t have to downplay his environmental advocacy on the campaign trail. To the contrary, it was a clear asset.
“You can’t get elected in this town without at least speaking strongly about sustainability and conservation,” O’Brien said. As chairman of the city council’s energy and environment committee and a member of the planning, land use and sustainability committee, he said he now works hard to turn those words into action.
The strong political support for sustainability allows O’Brien and his colleagues to move decisively toward climate action, albeit, not as fast as the councilman might like to go.
“The sea-level concerns are real,” O’Brien said. “Last year, we experienced the highest tide ever, and it wasn’t storm related. It flooded 100 homes.”
In January 2013, Seattle Public Utilities planners created a map, using conservative scientific assumptions, to show which parts of the city would be affected by the raising sea in the next 40 years.
“The map shows a significant amount of our industrial land under water in the year 2050,” O’Brien said. “That’s far enough away that it’s hard for people to grasp that reality, and yet at high tide and during high-water events we’re already seeing the impact.”
And, future impacts could affect more than just the homes and businesses in the new flood zones. A significant number of sewer lines and outfalls will need to be moved to prevent the backflow from flooding other areas of the city. These projected infrastructure changes, including the mitigation of combined sewer overflows and the stabilizing of the city’s antiquated seawall will cost hundreds of millions in the short term, and much more in the decades to come, depending on how high the water eventually rises.
While the seawall won’t be built higher to accommodate changes in sea level, the stabilization project will be designed to provide a foundation for future expansion, O’Brien said. For now, the project is intended primarily to prevent a disastrous failure of the wall during an earthquake, which could potentially cause large sections of the waterfront to collapse into Puget Sound.
But, the gradual rise in sea level, while a costly problem to overcome, can be dealt with through investments in infrastructure and relocation. There is another impending problem that keeps O’Brien up at night.
“Probably the bigger concern is that we get most of our energy from the snowpack in the mountains,” he said. And, according to area climate scientists, that snowpack is gradually melting away.
The city-owned utility, Seattle City Light, which gets 90 percent of its electric supply from hydroelectric power, has been carbon neutral since 2005, O’Brien said, and there’s definitely no appetite in the city for adding fossil fuels to the mix. Should the annual snow melt decline or disappear, the Seattle area will need to make up the difference through other forms of renewable energy, along with an assertive conservation program.
Seattle was an early adopter in the sustainability movement, according to Jill Simmons, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability & Environment. Her 18-member staff serves as a research and development team that keeps up on the latest trends, conducts feasibility tests and pilots, monitors progress, and helps other city departments plan and implement sustainability programs.
“We first had a focus on sustainability back in the early 90s, when we put out our first comprehensive plan, which had a tagline of ‘Toward a Sustainable Seattle,’” Simmons said. “So, we’ve been focused on sustainability for two decades, and now it’s infused into almost every aspect of city government.”
In June, the city council voted unanimously to adopt the Seattle Climate Action Plan. Three years in the making, the 92-page plan outlines hundreds of actions the city must take to become carbon neutral by 2050 and prepare itself for the likely effects of global warming.
“The climate action plan orients around two categories of actions,” Simmons said. “The first we call our ‘quick-start actions,’ or the things we need to be doing in the next three years to really lay the foundation for putting us on a path toward carbon neutrality. And, the second group of actions, we call our ‘by 2030 actions,’ or our mid-term actions that we recognize aren’t going to happen tomorrow, but are necessary if we’re really serious about being a climate-friendly city,” she said.
The plan focuses on three sectors where the city believes it can have the greatest influence in reducing carbon emissions: transportation and land use, building energy, and solid waste.
Transportation & Land Use
“Because we already have a carbon-neutral electric utility, transportation becomes the biggest single source of carbon emissions for us,” O’Brien said. “About 50 percent of our emissions come broadly from the transportation sector.”
As a result, the plan calls for investments in public transit, bike lanes and sidewalks. But, in the long run, if Seattle is going to reach its emission goals, there will need to be a fundamental change in the way the city is currently laid out.
Simmons said land-use patterns must evolve into a network of “complete communities” where residents can live, work, shop and play without having to drive so much. “We’re focusing on making land-use decisions and zoning code that allow for a diversity of housing types and services,” she said.
“But, we recognize that you’re not going to be able to walk to everything. People are still going to need to move around in vehicles, so we also have a focus on greening our transportation options as much as possible using electrification and alternate fuels.”
Simmons said the city has a large fleet of electric trolleys, some electric buses, and has recently invested in light rail and street cars. Seattle is also one of the largest electric car markets, per capita, in the nation, she said. As a result, the city is making significant investments in electric charging infrastructure.
Alternative fuels, including technologies that convert waste grease into fuel, are also a focus, she said, and all the city’s garbage trucks now run on compressed natural gas.
But there are significant obstacles to building the kind of transportation system the city envisions, Simmons said.
“The biggest constraints are financial. Just like everywhere else, we’re just coming out of a major recession, so pretty much everything is underfunded. We, as a region and a state, have a transportation funding crisis. We really need to come together to create a funding package and investment strategy that allows us to build the kind of multi-modal transportation system that we have the plans for, but can’t afford. It’s not something the city of Seattle can solve alone,” she said.
About 25 percent of Seattle’s greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings. Reducing fossil fuel consumption will take investments in renewable energy generation and distribution systems, but also in systems that provide building owners and occupants with critical information, O’Brien said.
“We recently created an energy benchmarking requirement for all buildings over 20,000 square feet, and I just learned this week that 94 percent of the buildings are in compliance, meaning they’ve reported their energy,” he said. “That’s by far the best metric anywhere in the country, among the eight or 10 cities that have benchmarking requirements. So, we’re collecting really good data now, and we have it in one spot.”
The next step, said Simmons, is figuring out how to share and use that data to affect substantial change.
“We now have two years of really good data,” she said, “and now we’re using it to make sure we’re designing the incentive packages correctly, that we’re providing the right information to building owners so they know how they can invest in their buildings’ energy performance, and making sure we have the right financing options available to them. So, it’s all about making sure they know what they need to do, and then getting them the resources to do it.”
From a policy standpoint, Seattle has written incentives into its building code to encourage new high-rise buildings to meet LEED silver or gold certification. Making buildings “district-energy ready” also earns certain advantages, O’Brien said.
Part of the district energy plan calls for using “waste heat” generated by sewage as well as computers in some of Seattle’s biggest data centers. Seattle, home to Microsoft, Amazon and other tech giants, is a prime location for utilizing server-farm heat, which has historically been vented into the environment or cooled artificially by systems that themselves required huge amounts of energy.
O’Brien said many of his constituents hunger to be more involved in the sustainability effort. This strong public support helped fuel Seattle’s Community Power Works program, a residential energy upgrade program that has so far provided retrofits to more than 2,900 homes and three hospitals. With an initial investment of $20 million the program is, on average, resulting in a 30 percent reduction in energy consumption with each retrofit.
The city of Seattle hopes to someday be a “zero-waste” community, said Director of Solid Waste Timothy Croll. In 2012, the city had a landfill diversion rate of 55.7 percent. Its goal is to reach 60 percent by 2015 and 70 percent by 2022. Croll said the single-family residential diversion rate is already at 70 percent, achieved through a 25-year history of gradually stepping up recycling efforts.
Croll cited four keys to success:
1) Making recycling convenient by giving residents special bins and providing curbside service for yard waste, food scraps, and recyclables. The uniform bins and garbage cans provided by the city also have the benefit of increasing efficiency and reducing injuries among collectors, since they can be emptied using semi-automated systems.
2) Outreach campaigns that promote the environmental benefits of recycling and composting.
3) Financial incentives: In a “pay as you throw” system, residents are issued garbage cans of various sizes; the bigger the can, the higher the monthly fee. And, fees for using the bigger cans are exaggerated to further encourage recycling and reuse.
4) Policies that ban recyclables in garbage. Croll said these policies are “lightly enforced” with plenty of warnings. (No one has ever been fined.)
The city began curbside recycling for single-family homes in 1988. In the late 1990s, it began collecting recyclables at apartment buildings; and in 2009 it started picking up yard and food waste once a week instead of every other week. Croll said the city council will soon be deciding whether to reduce garbage collection to every other week, in order to further encourage recycling.
“Our pilot study revealed that you get about a 15 percent reduction in land filling when you do that,” Croll said. The council may also be considering a ban on food waste in garbage, which would divert even more, he said.
The city has banned single-use plastic bags and requires merchants to charge 5 cents for a paper bag, which is money the merchants get to keep.
Croll said his department spends a great deal of time modeling and analyzing the composition of the waste stream in order to develop its diversion priorities and goals.
“The goals are all based on the cost effectiveness of diversion versus land filling,” Croll said. The processing fees the city pays to its recycling contractor are based on the market prices for recycled material, as determined by third-party indices.
“If those independent indices go up, showing the market is going up, then we get a credit to our processing fee. If they go down, then we have to pay more. Many more years than not, we’ve gotten a credit, and in some years the credit has been so big that we’ve actually made money from processing recyclables. That doesn’t count the cost of collecting,” he said.
“Overall the recycling program is cost effective because the cost of collecting the stuff is about the same as the cost of collecting garbage, so land filling it would be a lot more expensive than breaking even or possibly making a profit on processing,” Croll said.
Fighting the Good Fight
With all the efforts under way in Seattle, and with all the sustainability plans in place, Councilman O’Brien remains unsatisfied with the pace of change.
“As a community activist who’s been working on climate issues and decided a number of years ago, personally, that this was a significant problem that needed to be addressed immediately, I share the frustration with others who say we’re not doing enough and we’re not doing it soon enough. I acknowledge that, and I struggle as an elected official to figure out how I can play a role in changing that dynamic, because it’s critical, and every day we wait, more lives are going to be impacted and it’s going to cost us more to fix,” he said.
O’Brien said the problems associated with climate change need to be approached in two ways: mitigation and adaptation.
“We need to do everything we can to mitigate the impacts of climate change with aggressive policy decisions, and we also need to have an adaptation strategy, because even if we’re wildly successful on our mitigation, there’s enough carbon in the atmosphere that we’ve already bought ourselves some amount of climate change,” he said.
In his introduction to the Seattle Climate Action Plan, O’Brien called on the public to help fight the good fight:
“The time to act is now. The Climate Action Plan cannot be a vision that sits on a shelf. The City is committed to getting to work immediately on the actions in this Plan and to lead the way for other cities. I hope that Seattle’s residents and businesses will join us in taking action to ensure Seattle remains a great city for future generations.”