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Seattle leaders have been making a big promise for more than 15 years: that our city will lead the nation in fighting climate change. And yet, Seattle is polluting as much as it was 25 years ago. What went wrong? How can we do better? Explore the stories in our new series, The Burning Question, below. our reporting team: David Hyde, Amy Radil, John Ryan. Editor: Gil Aegerter.

Will Seattle’s new mayor hold the city to its climate change goals?

KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has vowed to take steps to help the city meet aggressive climate goals.

More electric vehicles. More charging stations. More transit. Congestion pricing for cars. Funds for affordable housing. And lobbying for a statewide carbon tax. Those are just some of the ideas Mayor Jenny Durkan and her supporters are considering to help Seattle meet ambitious carbon-emissions goals.  

Because the way things are going now, Seattle isn't going to get there.

The Burning Question: What would a climate-friendly Seattle actually look like?

So far, Durkan has embraced the goals set by the city’s previous leaders: to slash carbon emissions in coming decades. By 2030, the city has promised to cut emissions 58 percent from 2008 levels. And it aspires to be carbon neutral by 2050.

“Everyone should know we are absolutely committed to not just reaching our goals on climate change but really being a national and world leader on climate issues,” Durkan said the day after her swearing-in.

Maud Daudon, the president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said she's encouraged by Durkan's climate goals.

“I like the fact that right out of the gate [Durkan] took a position to sign the Chicago Climate Charter —  she clearly sees this as a key issue," Daudon said. "The Chamber itself — our chamber —  separated from the U.S. Chamber many years ago over the issue of climate. We definitely see it as a challenge that we are going to need to address."

Carbon emissions in Seattle have fallen 6 percent since 2008, even as the population grew 13 percent, according to a city analysis. And when emissions from industry are included, as well as emissions from air and marine traffic, there’s an even greater decline of 8 percent.

But Seattle is still emitting about as much carbon as it did in 1990.

And the city will need to show much more dramatic progress to meet its goals.

The city’s biggest sources of carbon emissions are cars and trucks, followed by buildings. At a mayoral debate in October, Durkan said she'll focus on reducing traffic downtown —  not only because of carbon emissions but also because convention center and streetcar construction will exacerbate traffic congestion there.

“Getting everybody out of single-occupancy vehicles — number one thing we’ve got to do," she said. "That means having better bus and transit coming into Seattle. It means going back to carpooling."

She said she will ask employers to stagger their work hours or allow employees to telecommute.

“I think we’re going to have to look at congestion pricing, but down the road,” she said.

Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien endorsed Cary Moon over Durkan in the mayor’s race.  But he said he’s heartened to see Durkan’s appointment of transit advocate Shefali Ranganathan as her deputy.

“I think that’s a great signal for me, I’m really excited about that appointment,” he said. “And then I think there’s just the issue of, what is going to be prioritized in this administration?”

There are a lot of urgent issues clamoring for attention at City Hall, and O’Brien said it’s up to voters on whether they want the city to go further with climate policy.

“Frankly, without a vocal, passionate, fierce advocacy group in the city of Seattle that is pushing us, I fear we will continue to underperform,” he said.

Electric vehicles could provide another means to reduce emissions. Seattle City’ Light’s hydropower means the city’s electrical supply uses virtually no fossil fuels.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Eileen V. Quigley is on Durkan's transition team. To meet climate goals, she says Seattle could push for more electric vehicles and work to phase out natural gas.", "fid": "141612", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201712/IMG_2641.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW/Amy Radil"}]]Eileen V. Quigley, the director of the group Clean Energy Transition and a member of Durkan’s transition team, said Seattle’s Drive Clean program is already installing the largest charging station in the country —  for the city’s fleet at the Seattle Municipal Tower.

“There’s enormous opportunity for Seattle to capitalize on its clean energy electricity," she said.

Quigley said next the city should press for a switch to electric vehicles for transit, delivery and self-driving cars. And mandate places to plug them in.

“It makes enormous sense to have all new buildings be electric-vehicle ready,” she said. “That means they’ve got the wiring, they’ve got the charging stations and they’ve made the space.”

San Francisco and Atlanta already require this.

Quigley praised Seattle’s Building Tune Ups ordinance passed last year, which requires building owners to find ways to save energy. She said a great next step would be to phase out natural gas.

“We have to get natural gas out of heating our buildings,” she said. “A city ordinance prohibiting new natural gas connections to buildings would be interesting.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Got Green's James Williams (with his son) said reducing carbon emissions is vital. But so is preparing for climate impacts and preventing displacement.", "fid": "141613", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201712/IMG_2637.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW/Amy Radil"}]]

Meanwhile, nonprofits are looking at the impact of Seattle’s climate goals on the city’s poor and people of color.

James Williams, the organizing director for the group “Got Green,” supports climate goals – and keeping fossil fuels in the ground. But he wants to make sure the resulting new jobs, buildings and vehicles don’t force current residents out — or leave them behind.

“We know that if we continue to move forward and we don’t deliberately think about and plan in regard to race, then we contribute to historical inequities and oppression," he said. "And because we know that, we should stop doing that."

Displacement is the No. 1 issue for his group. Williams said he’d like to see mitigation funds or other sources identified to make sure residents are accommodated as density increases.

Williams talked softly throughout the interview in his Columbia City office. His young son was napping in his arms. 

“This is Mumia," Williams said. "This is my son. He’s 2 years old. He’s the inspiration and motivation for a lot of the work I do.”

But as motivated as many are in Seattle, many say action beyond the city’s borders is crucial — possibly in the form of a carbon tax.

The Seattle Chamber hasn't taken a stance on a prospective carbon tax, but Maud Daudon said many of the chamber's members prefer policies that go beyond city borders.

“Many of our members feel strongly that the kinds of solutions they could support really have to be large-scale, predictable, transparent —  the bigger the better,” she said.

In this series, KUOW examines The Burning Question: What would a climate-friendly Seattle actually look like?

Year started with KUOW: 2005