Apropos of the recent climate shindig in Montreal, the Seattle P-I reports on the Seattle mayor’s decision to roll his own Kyoto by setting CO2 reduction goals for the city.

To me, the thing that’s most noteworthy here is the admission that, if greenhouse-gas emissions are really going to fall in a city like Seattle, a lot of the reduction will have to come from the transportation sector. Seattle’s electric utility is already climate neutral, at least nominally. So while there’s plenty of potential improvements in heating efficiency for buildings and in the city-owned vehicle fleet, the real action is going to be in reducing emissions from private cars and trucks.

All of which makes it a pretty risky commitment by the mayor, given the relatively limited range of policy tools available to city governments. And some of the steps to help Seattle residents use less fuel happen to involve attracting a lot of new residents to Seattle. Which puts the city in a bit of a bind — like the Red Queen in Alice and Wonderland, the city could wind up working harder and harder just to stay in one place.As it happens, one of the best things the city can do to reduce per-capita fuel consumption is foster more compact, transit- and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods — which are substantially more fuel efficient than sparsely populated suburbs. But to do that, the city is going to have to attract lots of new residents — you can’t create a dense neighborhood without adding people. Thus the bind: adding new residents (with needs for heat, light, and transportation) could add to the city’s emissions tally, even as creating compact neighborhoods reduces it.

Of course, there are plenty of things the city can do to encourage existing residents to drive less. But most of them have to do with making it more expensive to drive — tolling roadways in the city, taxing parking, and the like. Those are reasonable policy options — there are cities in the world that do those sorts of things. But they’ll be tough to pass in what is still, to a large extent, an intensely car-oriented metropolis. And rhetoric aside, city hall’s actual transportation policies of late (supporting big road-building projects in and around the city, including a $4-$5 billion waterfront tunnel, while squelching a monorail mass transit project) are, if anything, more pro-car than his predecessors’.

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Of course, the city might be able to meet its reduction goals with some creative accounting. For example, it could meet its Kyoto goal by focusing on reducing climate-warming emissions outside the city itself. This isn’t necessarily an obvious point, and there may be no easy way to make this happen in practice. But there could be easier, and more cost effective, means to reduce such emissions outside the city than inside it. For example, Seattle’s electric utility — which has fairly effective conservation policies — could work with other utilities in the region to help them become climate neutral. That could make a big difference to the region’s net climate impact — but it’s not at all the same thing as reducing Seattle’s own emissions, which is (apparently) the bar the mayor has set for the city.

The mayor’s set the city a big task, and I applaud him for it.  But it’s going to be tough going; if the city’s really going to pull this off, city hall’s going to have to take on the car. And it’s not an easy opponent.

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