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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.

VIDEO: Seattle a 'climate leader'? Our carbon emissions tell a different story

To get to zero carbon emissions by 2050, Seattle would have to make dramatic cuts, starting now.
KUOW Illustration by
To get to zero carbon emissions by 2050, Seattle would have to make dramatic cuts, starting now.

For more than 15 years, leaders of the Emerald City have been promising that Seattle will lead the nation in fighting climate change.

But the lofty words have been matched by continuing clouds of carbon emissions: Seattle dumps as much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the sky today as it did 25 years ago.

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

After a while, the pronouncements start to sound like a broken record – beginning in 2001 with Mayor Paul Schell and continuing with every mayor since then.

“We set a new standard of trying to be the national leader on a lot of fronts,” Schell recalled in 2001 as he was leaving office. “I think our citizens expect that from our city.”

Schell committed the city to cut emissions 7 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2010.

In 2005, Mayor Greg Nickels made the same 7-percent commitment and started a national coalition of mayors dedicated to it.

“I asked the people of Seattle to work with me to take local action to meet the reductions called for in the Kyoto protocol,” Nickels said in 2006 at a press conference at which former Vice President Al Gore thanked Nickels and the people of Seattle for “lead[ing] the U.S. on this great moral challenge.”

The Seattle City Council and Mayor Mike McGinn promised in 2011 that the city would cut emissions 58 percent by 2030 and eliminate them entirely 20 years later. Seattle’s 2013 climate action plan spelled out the commitments in detail.

“Carbon neutrality by 2050, it means you have to do a lot in the near term,” McGinn told Science Friday’s Ira Flatow at a show recorded at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center in 2013.

“Donald Trump doesn’t want us to lead, but Seattle will lead,” Mayor Ed Murray said after President Trump announced he would abandon the Paris climate accords, an agreement signed by every nation on earth. “We are standing by our commitment to be 100 percent renewable by the year 2050.”

“We will not just lead the nation. We may lead the world,” candidate Jenny Durkan told KUOW during her campaign last year. She repeated the claim the day after her swearing-in.

But the city’s results have not matched its rhetoric.

“We are not reducing pollution fast enough to meet our very ambitious 2050 goals,” said Jessica Finn Coven, head of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment under mayors Murray and Durkan.

Coven said she takes climate change very seriously.

“As a lifelong climate activist, I always think we need to be doing more. I am aware constantly of this problem,” she said. “I have a 4- and a 7-year-old. This is their future that we're all working for. So I take it really seriously.”

Seattle’s biggest sources of carbon pollution are the vehicles that move us and the buildings that shelter us.

The city has tried to rein in pollution from cars and trucks under various mayors, but our rising population and traffic have swamped those efforts.

Buildings, which account for about a third of the city’s carbon pollution, have had a better track record. Their emissions have been falling as fast as the climate plan calls for, according to the city’s numbers for 2014, the latest available.

“We have one of the most efficient building codes in the country, and we've continued to innovate on that,” Coven said.

Matthew Combe with Seattle 2030 District, a nonprofit that aims to halve energy use in downtown Seattle in the next 22 years, said the city’s success in lowering emissions from homes deserves more attention.

“So residents and people who live in Seattle and frankly, people who live in U.S. can see what success looks like and how people are achieving it,” Combe said.

Still, after some ups and downs with the economy, Seattle’s emissions are essentially unchanged from what they were in 1990.

[asset-images[{"caption": "", "fid": "141847", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201801/KUOWSeattleCO2chart.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW chart/John Ryan. Data from Seattle Office of Sustainability and Environment"}]]The city’s population and economy grew tremendously during that time: Policies and technologies kept emissions from growing. But scientists say that’s not enough: Anything short of rapid de-carbonization is a recipe for climate disaster.

Despite the city’s undiminished pollution, Coven said Seattle is a climate leader.

“If you look at per-person emissions in Seattle versus other large cities, we are amongst the best,” she said.

That’s not saying much, according to climate activist Emily Johnston with 350 Seattle.

“Do we want to be like the smartest student in the class that's failing? Because that is what we are doing,” Johnston said. “Our statements and even our goals are only defensible as being leadership compared to other places, and those other places are failing too.”

[asset-audio[{"description": "", "fid": "141880", "uri": "public://201801/NEWS_20180110_Ryan2way.mp3"}]]No one city can make or break the global climate, but mayors and governors across the country say they can fill the void left by a Trump administration that shuns government action for the climate.

Johnston said failure in Seattle would especially harm the broader effort to hang on to a livable climate.

“If we can't do this, if we won't do this, who will?” Johnston asked.

Seattle officials missed their Dec. 30 deadline for outlining the key actions needed to get the city back on track with its carbon-neutral pledge and with a global effort to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“We wanted to make sure Mayor Durkan was really part of this and that we’re moving forward her climate priorities and her climate agenda,” Coven said.

Coven said the new action agenda, ordered by Seattle City Council last June, is now expected by the end of March.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Seattle architect Rico Quiringdongo says the general public doesn't know the implications of the city's climate plan to them.", "fid": "141846", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201801/20180108-quirindongo.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW photo/John Ryan"}]]

“Seattle’s not going to be able meet carbon neutrality by 2050 if we don’t continue to drive toward substantive change,” Seattle architect Rico Quirindongo said. “There has to be a heavy push and a heavy lift.”

I spoke with Quirindongo in Pioneer Square after he moderated a panel on what a carbon-neutral Seattle would look like. About 20 people showed up.

Quirindongo said that few people even know that Seattle has had a plan to eliminate its carbon emissions since 2013.

“I think it’s a very thorough plan,” Quirindongo said, “but the general public, frankly, I don’t believe is aware that a plan exists or what it means or what the implications of it are to them and their daily activities.”

Quirindongo said he thinks it might even be deliberate that the city’s climate action plan is so little known outside a handful of policy wonks. That way, if the city breaks its promises to do right by the climate, few people find out, and nobody’s held accountable.

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

John Ryan loves getting tips and documents. He can be reached at or on the encrypted Signalor WhatsApp apps at 1-401-405-1206 (whistleblowers, never do so from a work or government device, account or location). For greatest security, use KUOW's SecureDrop portal. Snail mail is also a safe way to reach him confidentially: KUOW, 4518 University Way NE #310, Seattle, WA 98105. Don't put your return address on the outside.

Year started with KUOW: 2009