Seattle skylineThe Seattle area is pioneering a new way to track CO2 emissions -- and it's more exciting than it sounds! (Photo by James Arnott)

As long as the U.S. federal government remains a basket case on climate change, most progress is going to take place at the sub-national level, in states and cities. It’s difficult to find a state or metro area of any size that does not have plans (or at least aspirations) to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. That’s true in “red” parts of the country as well as “blue.”

What has become clear over the last few years, however, is that cities, in particular, do not necessarily have the tools they need to do the job. In part that’s because they’re subject to forces governed at the state or federal level. But it’s also because the task is new enough that many tools just haven’t yet been invented.

One of the biggest gaps is also one of the simplest: measurement. It turns out there’s no comprehensive, standardized way for cities to track their carbon pollution. This lack of shared metrics is an invitation to empty rhetoric and symbolic gestures. What gets measured gets solved, etc. etc.

Which brings us to some fascinating new work from the Seattle metro area, Grist’s own backyard. The folks at the Stockholm Environment Institute have just released a report on “Greenhouse Gases in King County.” I know that most of you probably aren’t interested in the exact numerical GHG emissions of us Pacific Northwesterners, but a few features of the report are of broader interest and worth highlighting.

First and most notably, the report does not merely tally the greenhouse gases produced within the county (though it does that too). It also attempts to quantify the greenhouse gas emissions embedded in the products and services consumed by King Country residents.

This provides a much clearer picture of the county’s actual contributions to the climate problem. As regions and cities grow wealthier, they tend to push out heavy industry and manufacturing and shift to service-based economies. If you look only at the production side, this makes their GHG emissions appear to plunge. But by virtue of their wealth, they consume a lot more, and all that stuff they’re consuming was made somewhere by GHG-emitting industries. When those embedded GHGs are included, the picture changes dramatically. (This same dynamic holds, needless to say, at the national level — the U.S. has exported much of its GHG production to China.)

So, for instance, in 2008 King County produced about 12 tons of GHGs per resident. But its consumption-based GHGs came in at 29 tons per resident. More than double! That’s interesting in its own right, but particularly important for informing the county’s climate policies.

Secondly, the report attempts to establish a framework whereby the county’s GHG emissions can be tracked over time, using data sources already available. It shows where political leaders can have the most impact, both direct (for King County, it’s buildings, driving, and waste disposal) and indirect (e.g., education campaigns to reduce meat consumption). This will encourage results-based rather than press-release-based policy making.

Anyway, this is all a bit in the nerdy weeds, but the task of giving local leaders reliable, shared metrics to track GHGs is vital — the first step upon which all subsequent steps rely. Other cities will want to pay attention.