Seattle Tackles Greenhouse Gases

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States and cities are jumping into the campaign to reduce the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. One of the leaders in that effort: the port city of Seattle.


Representatives of many nations gather today in Montreal to talk about global warming. The United States has rejected any binding agreements to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, as called for by the Kyoto protocol. That's the international treaty on climate change, but many American mayors and governors have made Kyoto-style commitments on their own. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports on one of the leaders in that effort, the port city of Seattle.

(Soundbite of horn)

Unidentified Man: We're now loading all walk-on passengers for the 8:45 sailing to Seattle. All aboard, please.


Ferries are an icon of Seattle and a major source of the area's greenhouse gas emissions. On a ferry ride from Bainbridge Island to Seattle, Chief Engineer Paul Broder(ph) says he's trying to change that. By modernizing the ship's engines, he's cutting global-warming pollution.

Mr. PAUL BRODER (Ferry Chief Engineer): We're going to burn the fuel cleaner and more completely, and we're not going to be emitting as much particulate matter and greenhouse gases.

SHOGREN: That has cut diesel use by about 3 percent. It would hardly be worth mentioning except for the fact that the ferries burn about 20 million gallons of diesel a year, twice as much as the bus system. Broder's also trying to find a way for the ferries to run on biodiesel, a fuel made of vegetable oil. That would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 80 percent. In initial tests, the biodiesel mucked up the engines, but Broder's not deterred.

Mr. BRODER: Washington is ripe for a biodiesel industry. We have the east side of the state where we grow our crops. We can produce the biodiesel in state, and we can burn it on the west side where we have all our commute options with metro and with the ferries.

SHOGREN: This is just one of many efforts under way to rein in greenhouse gas emissions in Seattle. The city's goal is to cut emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Dennis McLerran, who heads the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, says it won't be easy, but Seattle takes its commitment very seriously.

Mr. DENNIS McLERRAN (Puget Sound Clean Air Agency): We all realize that we can only do a small part because it is a global problem, but with the federal government not taking action, there's a strong desire here for us to demonstrate that it can happen from the ground up.

SHOGREN: He says people in Seattle don't need to be convinced that climate change is real because they feel its effects directly. The shrinking snowpack in the Cascade Mountains threatens water supplies and the hydropower that provides most of the city's electricity. It even threatens the way Seattle residents play.

Mr. McLERRAN: Last winter, it's the first winter in memory that most of the ski areas here didn't open for much of the winter. We weren't able to ski, and so we see it in very visible ways that are very important to us.

SHOGREN: In most places, electric utilities are the biggest emitters of greenhouses gases, but in Seattle, the electric utility is one of the biggest climate change success stories. Lynn Best from Seattle City Light says the utility expects to cut its net emissions of greenhouse gases to zero this year.

Ms. LYNN BEST (Seattle City Light): It's really exciting 'cause we believe we'll be the first electric utility in the nation to be greenhouse gas neutral.

SHOGREN: The utility got a head start because most of its electricity comes from hydropower. The dams don't emit greenhouse gases. The utility sold its interest in one coal-fired power plant, but it still gets some power from burning coal and natural gas, which does emit greenhouse gases. To offset those emissions, it pays to reduce global warming pollution from other sources. For example, it kicked in money to make cruise ships cleaner.

(Soundbite of birds)

SHOGREN: McLerran from the Clean Air Agency watches as the massive ships quietly pull up to the docks.

Mr. McLERRAN: As you look at one of the cruise ships coming into port, you see a brown haze coming out of the stacks on the ship, and that's fuel being combusted.

SHOGREN: And greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere. Cruise ships are like little cities with really dirty power plants. Usually when they're in port, they keep pumping greenhouse gases and other pollution into the air. But soon after two of the Princess line ships dock, they connect to the city's electricity system, and their dark plumes disappear.

Mr. McLERRAN: When you plug the ship into the electric grid, it's basically powering off of greenhouse-gas-free electricity.

SHOGREN: Officials hope their clean electricity will help them combat the region's biggest source of global warming pollution, cars and other motor vehicles. As it is now, cars and emissions from them are increasing so much that greenhouse gas emissions are still going up. Part of the solution is a light-rail system that will run on city electricity. It's now under construction.

(Soundbite of construction site)

SHOGREN: Building a rail system in hilly Seattle isn't easy. Geoff Patrick from the transit system points towards a big piece of equipment that looks a bit like a rocket ship on its side.

Mr. GEOFF PATRICK (Seattle Transit System): We're going to use a state-of-the-art tunnel boring machine. When it's fully put together, it'll be about as long as a football field. And we'll run it through the hill twice, once for the northbound light-rail tunnel and once for the southbound.

SHOGREN: Steve Nicholas from the mayor's office says providing convenient public transportation is a challenge in a city as sprawling as Seattle.

Mr. STEVE NICHOLAS: Seattle has grown up over the course of the last several decades as a pretty low-density city, and partly because of that, a very car- dependent city. And that's a pattern that we absolutely need to break if we're going to succeed in terms of reducing our global warming pollution.

SHOGREN: That's why the mayor's promoting changes in building codes and zoning rules to make it easier to build high-rise developments that use less energy per person. He wants to create neighborhoods where people can work, shop and live in one place.

Mr. NICHOLAS: These kind of compact, urban, walkable development patterns can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution and energy consumption and vehicle miles traveled by about a third.

SHOGREN: As he rides in one of the city's hybrid vehicles, McLerran says no one expects cars to go away. So local officials lobbied successfully to get the state to adopt California's standards for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light tracks.

Mr. McLERRAN: That will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the motor vehicle fleet by 30 percent by 2017. That's a big number when it's 55 percent of your greenhouse gas emissions as a whole.

SHOGREN: But the White House might block that part of Seattle's plan. The Bush administration is challenging the California emission standards in court. President Bush favors voluntary and gradual efforts to cut climate change pollution, but Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and many other leaders of state and local government say mandatory steps and quick actions are needed because of the huge scale of the challenge.

Mayor GREG NICKELS (Seattle, Washington): We do know that as long as the federal government refuses to take leadership that we at the local level are going to have to take that leadership, show that it's safe for us to take these actions, that we're not going to disrupt our economy, as some would suggest, and ultimately we will make it impossible for the federal government, either this administration or the next one, to ignore us.

SHOGREN: Even though Seattle officials have cut emissions from public buildings, buses and the electricity utility, they're still far from their goal. They haven't yet computed what cuts they have to make to get there, but they're working on it. The mayor appointed what he calls a green-ribbon commission of business and environmental leaders. It's considering a wide range of options to reduce emissions, including following London's lead in charging a fee to drive into the city. One way or another, Nickels says, the city will meet its commitment.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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