July 28, 2005

Momentum is building to reduce global warming

  • The call for action is coming from unlikely sources: city halls, state houses and corporate board rooms.
    City of Seattle

    Image courtesy city of Seattle
    Local greenhouse emissions are predicted to continue an upward trend into 2020. The Koyto Protocol calls for a 7 percent reduction over 1990 levels by 2012.

    In February of this year, Mayor Greg Nickels challenged other mayors across the country to join him in embracing the global warming pollution-cutting goals of the Kyoto Protocol. By mid-July, more than 170 mayors had accepted the challenge.

    In May, industrial giant General Electric announced plans to significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and double its investment in climate solutions. "There's no time to wait because tomorrow is now," said GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt.

    In June, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced an ambitious new greenhouse gas emission target for the country's largest state: 80 percent reduction by 2050.

    In city halls, state houses and corporate boardrooms across America, momentum is building for strong action to combat global climate disruption. And the Seattle region is helping to lead the charge.

    Businesses jump in

    Perhaps the most powerful indicator of the turning tide is the growing number of U.S. businesses that are taking serious action to reduce global warming pollution, despite the absence of any regulatory requirement to do so.

    General Electric's recently launched Eco-imagination initiative includes a commitment to double the company's investment in clean technology research and development, and reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions by 1 percent over the next seven years. (The company's emissions are otherwise projected to increase 40 to 45 percent.)

    Twenty-three global companies — including Ford, British Airways and BP — recently sent a letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair urging the leading industrial nations to establish a global system for curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

    Closer to home, Starbucks Corp. in April announced its climate protection strategy, including a commitment to buy enough renewable wind energy to meet 5 percent of the energy load of its 7,000-plus North American stores.

    Seeing green

    What's behind this remarkable shift in corporate thinking and strategy? As always, there are a number of factors at play, but two in particular stand out.

    First, it's clear that more and more companies are realizing that the global climate and the business climate are inextricably linked — that it's not just glaciers and salmon runs that are at stake, but also their own company's long-term viability and profitability.

    In announcing Starbucks' climate strategy, Sandra Taylor, senior vice president of corporate responsibility, said: "Even subtle changes in the climate globally may significantly impact the quality of life in coffee-growing communities. Therefore, climate change is an important part of our overall social responsibility efforts."

    Second, a growing number of forward-looking companies see that the road to a climate-friendly future is paved with profits. For example John Plaza, encouraged by rising demand for clean fuels in our region, recently opened Seattle Biodiesel in South Seattle, the state's first biodiesel production facility.

    Earlier this month, Klickitat County officials announced the creation of a new energy overlay zone to encourage and facilitate development of wind power energy in the wheat fields and sagebrush deserts of south-central Washington.

    "This is like the year before the gold rush, and they're on top of it," said Bruce Morley, the chief executive of Wind River Power, a consortium of companies looking to build a large wind farm in the new land-use zone.

    Or, as GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt put it in a speech last month at George Washington University: "We believe we can help improve the environment and make money doing it. We see that green is green."

    Immelt, Plaza and the Klickitat County Council are among the growing number of forward-thinkers who see the writing on the wall: The demand for clean, climate-friendly sources of energy is only going to increase as rising fossil-fuel prices, increased consumer demand for clean products, tightening international business standards, and the specter of U.S. government regulations continue to drive the shift in market forces.

    Taking the initiative

    Accelerating this transition, and positioning Seattle and the Puget Sound region to seize the opportunities it does and will entail, is one of the goals behind Nickels' Climate Protection Initiative.

    The initiative has two components. One is the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, a voluntary commitment among cities to work individually and collectively to reduce global warming pollution. Mayor Nickels launched the agreement Feb. 16, the day the Kyoto Protocol went into effect in the 141 countries that had ratified the treaty.

    Nickels set two goals: for at least 141 fellow mayors to sign onto the agreement; and for the United States Conference of Mayors to endorse the agreement at its annual meeting in Chicago in June.

    Both goals have been accomplished. As of July 15, 173 mayors have signed onto the agreement, including mayors representing more than 36 million people in 37 states. And, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously endorsed the agreement at its meeting.

    The widespread grassroots support for Nickels' Kyoto challenge has been covered in the national and international media, and entered into recent discussions about global warming policy in the U.S. Senate and at the G8 Summit in Scotland.

    This burgeoning network of climate-wise communities is now poised to play a powerful role in climate protection, including bolstering demand for clean energy technologies, and advocating for responsible climate policy at the state and federal levels. As a next step, the city's Office of Sustainability and Environment is working with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the nonprofit International Council on Local Environmental Initiatives on a plan to increase the number of participating cities and help implement the agreement.

    The other component of Nickels' climate initiative is his recently appointed Green Ribbon Commission on Climate Protection, which is charged with developing a strategy for meeting or beating the Kyoto Protocol targets in the Seattle community. The commission, co-chaired by Bullitt Foundation President Denis Hayes and retired Starbucks president Orin Smith, includes leaders from government as well as the nonprofit, labor, corporate and academic communities.

    The Kyoto Protocol calls for a 7 percent emissions reduction by 2012, compared to 1990 levels. With community-wide greenhouse gas emissions projected by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to increase by nearly 40 percent by 2020, this is a daunting task.

    Since the vast majority of global warming pollution in our region can be traced to transportation-related emissions and the use of energy in homes and businesses, those are the main areas of focus for the commission's work. Their recommendations are due to the mayor by the end of the year.

    "This is not going to be 'turn out your lights when you leave rooms,'" says Hayes. "We'll be looking for ways we can dramatically de-carbonize the economy and at the same time make it robust," he said.

    Steve Nicholas is director of the city of Seattle's Office of Sustainability and Environment.

    Other Stories:

    Copyright ©2009 Seattle Daily Journal and DJC.COM.
    Comments? Questions? Contact us.