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Want Seattle to be more climate-friendly? Here’s a to-do list

caption: Jane, 7, drew this version of a climate-friendly Seattle for a KUOW drawing contest.
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1 of 5 Jane, 7, drew this version of a climate-friendly Seattle for a KUOW drawing contest.

In "The Burning Question," KUOW takes a close look at Seattle’s goal of carbon neutrality and what it would take to get there. It turns out a lot of those solutions are right around us.

So, what would it be like to wake up in a Seattle that’s really on track to be carbon neutral? Here are seven snapshots of what success might look like.

A carbon-neutral Seattle might look like zHome, a 10-unit townhouse development in the Issaquah Highlands. These houses generate extra power in summer with solar panels and use tight insulation and heat pumps to conserve energy year-round, so they produce as much as they use. They’re located next to an affordable housing complex — also energy-efficient — and adjacent to transit and shopping.

Brad Liljequist managed the zHome development. He now directs zero-energy projects for the International Living Future Institute based in Seattle’s Bullitt Center. He said the Great Recession nearly killed the project and was a huge setback for eco-friendly construction in general, but now momentum is growing again.

In the past few months the institute has seen dozens of new zero-energy projects registered around the country. One of them is the office of architect Julian Weber on King Street near Little Saigon in Seattle. Weber said these building practices have helped him fix his electricity costs for the next 25 years; he simply pays Seattle City Light a “minimum charge” of less than $20 per month.

Weber said there are no barriers to doing more projects like this — they are 5 to 10 percent more expensive to build, but not as much of a factor as the price of land or construction in general. And architects, engineers and contractors are familiar with zero-energy options.

“More people just need to believe it’s possible,” he said.

Liljequist said in a climate-friendly Seattle, “every building would be zero-energy, we’d have to retrofit every building to perform at that level.”

Seattle requires owners of large commercial and multifamily buildings to disclose their energy use and is implementing a new requirement for energy tune-ups which should cut energy use for those buildings by 10-15 percent. Jessica Finn Coven directs Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment, and she said the regulations are an example of how cities can adopt and refine one another’s efforts.

“We work really closely with a lot of other cities,” she said.

Seattle enacted the initial requirements for building operators to track and report their energy performance to the city. But there was no requirement for public disclosure.

“Portland took that ordinance, and then passed it with the public transparency of data piece a couple years later,” Finn Coven said. “We then took what they did, came back to Seattle, passed that public transparency piece, and layered on the ‘building tune-up’ requirement.”

And that means building owners are required to find ways to reduce their energy and water consumption.

Besides energy for buildings, the other big source of carbon emissions in Seattle is transportation. Liljequist said the city needs to create dedicated pathways for everything besides cars. A new grid could serve electric bikes and other “microvehicles.”

“Those are about to explode,” Liljequist said. “If we had an alternative grid for that kind of mobility we’d be able to reduce the carbon footprint of that.”

Communities are also making the most of the walkways and trails they have. In South Park, local teens have worked to improve the 8th Avenue Trail for pedestrians.

“The youth called it a scary trail,” Paulina Lopez with the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition said, because it was filled with graffiti and weeds. But now it’s transformed. “They planted more than 40 trees, and they’ve been thriving, and it’s a much better space right now,” she said.

The city is also designing a trail to connect the main streets of Georgetown and South Park.

Life in a climate-friendly Seattle would be literally greener, since trees absorb carbon and help with cooling. Seattle’s goal is to have 30 percent tree canopy; currently it stands at 28 percent overall, and in Georgetown and South Park it’s much lower. City officials say there’s so much pavement in those neighborhoods, it’s hard to find places to plant new trees.

Along Corson Avenue South, the city tore up existing pavement to plant trees between the sidewalk and the street. Darren Morgan manages Seattle’s urban forestry for the transportation department.

“This was identified by the community as a space that to them looked devoid of street trees and it didn’t make sense why,” he said. “And we came and took a look and sure enough, we had a planting strip here that was covered with asphalt.”

The trees are still small, but provide some screening for pedestrians. Michelle Caulfield, who oversaw the project for the Office of Sustainability and Environment, added: “It definitely makes the street feel more walkable.

“In the spring and summertime it’s lovely to walk along the street. Even though there’s traffic, the trees provide a bit of buffer," she said.

But the city does not keep a count of the number of trees on private property that have been taken down as a result of development. As Investigate West noted last fall, a city report found that Seattle’s current code is “not supporting tree protection.”

Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson is working on an ordinance to strengthen protections for trees on private property, and to require better coordination between the various city agencies to preserve tree canopy. He said Mayor Jenny Durkan “has shown a lot of interest in harmonization” of existing rules to provide more accountability. He expects to see proposed rule changes from her office sometime this spring.

So you live in a super-efficient, perhaps solar-powered building, and you walk or bike on safe, dedicated streets or trails. But what about transit? King County Metro has had electric trolley buses for decades, but now the agency is moving to an all-electric bus fleet by the year 2040.

Pete Melin is in charge of the agency’s zero-emissions fleet technology. “We kind of have our toe in the water, we’ve got 11 battery-electric buses now that run on the Eastside that are of limited range but they charge in 10 minutes or less,” he said.

Melin said manufacturers are still working to develop the batteries and charge times that will allow Metro to use electric buses on all its routes. This summer they’ll run a pilot with larger electric buses in South King County. He said they’ll be testing buses by various manufacturers to evaluate whether they can “charge in four hours or less, handle our terrain – we’ll then put them into revenue service and test them out with passengers on them.”

Since South King County has poorer air quality, that’s where Metro is running its electric bus trial. Government officials and nonprofits say they are committed to helping historically disadvantaged groups get access to these solutions.

Giulia Pasciuto with Puget Sound Sage said her group is working to keep low-income people and people of color in the neighborhood as the new Graham Street light rail station is developed in South Seattle, between the Columbia City and Othello stations.

“There’s the direct climate impact of displacement where lower income communities and communities of color who are displaced end up driving more because they have less access to transit,” she said, “[They] are buying less efficient cars because they’re less expensive, and adding to our greenhouse gas emissions as a region.”

Her colleague Debolina Banerjee said she’s encouraged by Seattle’s creation of an Environmental Justice Committee to provide advisory opinions on city policies and new funding for these priorities.

“There is an effort on the part of the city," she said. "I wouldn’t say it’s done where it is right now. There is definitely more room for improvement, but there’s definitely a culture within the city that’s ready to change and incorporate the community within city policies."

For frequent fliers, those air miles are probably their biggest source of carbon emissions. Air traffic is growing rapidly at Sea-Tac International Airport, including international flights and air cargo.

Many people say they can’t imagine limiting the flights they take for business or pleasure, or to see family. But video conferencing can reduce the amount of business trips people need, even when face-to-face meetings are still important.

Amy Snover heads the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. She said nothing can replicate the “hallway conversations” that occur at big scientific conferences. But some business travel is becoming more avoidable.

When she was invited with four other scientists to give congressional briefings in Washington, D.C., the group prepared and got to know each other through video conferencing and cut back on preparatory trips that way.

“When we got to D.C., we gave each other hugs as though we’d known each other for a long time, and we’d never met in person,” she said.

In addition to cutting back on flights whenever possible, it’s better to make efficient use of jet fuel, so flying economy class is better in terms of carbon emissions.

While the Washington Legislature is looking at more far-reaching measures to tax carbon statewide, companies like Microsoft are imposing their own internal price on carbon to help employees consider the trade-offs. And local governments are taking lessons from that.

“We started thinking about a price on carbon to inform our decision-making,” said Megan Smith, who directs climate and energy initiatives for King County. “We wanted to be able to look really into the future and think about not just the cost of that investment today, but how will it affect our energy and water use in the future.”

County employees met with Microsoft to learn from the company's efforts to curb carbon emissions and developed what she calls “a shadow price” on carbon to inform purchasing decisions.

"So we’ve started to use a cost of carbon when we’re evaluating things like a decision to go to battery buses," Smith said. "And we did indeed go to a commitment to purchase 120 battery buses by 2020."

The carbon-pricing concept also led to King County’s decision to join Starbucks, REI, Sound Transit and others in subscribing to a wind energy project through Puget Sound Energy’s Green Direct program. Smith says King County has also committed to constructing 10 “zero-energy” buildings by 2020.

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