What Would a City-Level Green New Deal Look Like? Seattle’s About to Find Out

The next step is turning the City Council’s resolution into pro-climate policies and finding ways to pay for them. Seattle has a few big ideas.

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Seattle's People's Climate March filled the city's streets in 2017. Credit: Karen Ducey/Getty Images
Seattle has a history of environmental efforts and a population that stands up for the climate. The People's Climate March drew crowds into Seattle's streets in 2017. Credit: Karen Ducey/Getty Images

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City leaders launched Seattle on the path to a Green New Deal this week, passing a resolution that starts laying out an ambitious plan for how the city can cut its greenhouse gas emissions in ways that protect the climate and improve the lives of its residents.

It’s a nonbinding resolution, and like the national Green New Deal manifesto that’s being promoted by Democrats in Congress, presidential hopefuls and the young activists in the Sunrise Movement, it’s still mostly aspirational.

But it begins to sketch out a roadmap for Seattle’s future as the city tries to both adapt to climate change and cut emissions in line with what the world’s scientists say is needed.

The resolution envisions free public transit, a limit on new fossil fuel construction, 100 percent electric vehicles for ride sharing, and an infrastructure plan that takes sea level rise into account, among other ideas.

The big question confronting city officials and environmentalists now is how to begin implementing—and paying for—many of these initiatives. There are hints within the resolution, which mentions a congestion pricing plan to support low-income transit, using proceeds from a soda tax to promote healthy foods, and developing “green zones” to provide financing in neighborhoods that have historically borne the brunt of pollution.

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Some climate activists see Seattle’s measure as the first step toward moving from symbolic gestures to specific goals and potential ways to implement them.

“It lays out the goals and timeline and ways to get there,” said Alec Connon, an organizer with the environmental advocacy group 350 Seattle. “No policies have changed, but it is a clear statement of intent from Seattle leaders that they’re understanding the sheer severity and urgency of the climate emergency.”

The move by Seattle highlights how local and state governments are setting ambitious targets to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in the absence of federal action, particularly at a time when scientific warnings are becoming increasingly urgent and the Trump administration is backing out of federal efforts aimed at curbing climate change.

This spring, Washington became the fifth state or territory—following Hawaii, California, New Mexico and Puerto Rico—to pass legislation committing to 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. Other states, including New York, have adopted aggressive policies to meet goals set by the Paris climate agreement, which the Trump administration abandoned in 2017.

“Climate change is one of the gravest threats we face, and the solutions to climate change must also be solutions that address income inequality and racial inequity,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement after the City Council unanimously passed the resolution Monday. “While they debate the Green New Deal in the other Washington, we must continue to do more in Seattle.”

Translating Goals Into Policy

While a nonbinding resolution can set out goals, the city will have to find ways to translate those goals into actual policy to make a difference.

“The bigger story is, ‘Does Seattle take that next step?’ Whether that’s developing a tax or finding ways to earmark funding and go deeper into the implementation process,” said Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

When asked if the city of Seattle had any specific plans on how it would fund the goals in the resolution, Jessica Finn Coven, the city’s director of the Office of Sustainability and Environment said, “the answer is yes and no.” 

Last week, Durkan proposed a tax on home heating oil to help as many as 18,000 Seattle homes transition from oil to some form of cleaner energy. So, when it comes to funding the specific goal of transitioning away from using oil to heat homes, there is a specific mechanism on the table, Finn Coven said.

For the broader proposals in the resolution, she said, city lawmakers are researching their options and working with constituents and community leaders to determine how to move forward.

Mayor Jenny Durkan. Credit: Mat Hayward/Getty Images
“Climate change is one of the gravest threats we face and the solutions to climate change must also be solutions that address income inequality and racial inequity,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said. “While they debate the Green New Deal in the other Washington, we must continue to do more in Seattle.”

Connon said he hopes to see policies soon now that the resolution has passed, and he believes there are promising funding options available to help the city pay for some of the initiatives laid out in the measure, such as congestion pricing and implementing new taxes.

As an example of one viable option used in another city, Connon points to a move by Portland, Oregon, where voters last November passed a measure that imposes a tax on large retailers to help pay for the city’s clean energy efforts.

Another way Seattle could pay for its green goals would be a levy, Connon said. Earlier this spring, nearly 70 percent of Seattle voters backed a $2.2 billion education levy.

“There’s no reason the city couldn’t do a Green New Deal levy to help kick this off,” he said.

‘Cities Continue to Push the Needle’

Seattle is one of a handful of U.S. cities that have mitigation goals for urban heat islands, have adopted or advocated for stringent building energy codes and have set targets for energy efficient transportation plans that take into mind low-income communities, according to a report released last month by the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

When it comes to reducing energy use and trying to spur renewable energy, “cities continue to push the needle,” said David Ribeiro, senior research manager at ACEEE.

The ACEEE report found that 75 large U.S. cities had taken more than 200 actions on renewable energy and energy efficiency. Seattle ranked No. 3 in the report, behind San Francisco and Boston.

“In the case of Seattle, they are a city that’s already leading on clean energy,” Ribeiro said. “They have aggressive goals; they have aggressive policies; they have good planning processes.”

Ribeiro said it’s hard to know whether Seattle’s Green New Deal resolution will push more cities to follow suit. Los Angeles recently released a “Green New Deal” sustainability plan focused heavily on energy efficiency and renewable energy.

“I think it’s all a matter of the interest of the residents and business owners in that city,” Ribeiro said.

Published Aug. 14, 2019

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