Fighting Global Warming Block by Block
Sunday, May 4, 2008
SEATTLE -- King County Executive Ron Sims has a simple test for every new public works project, building plan or government land purchase: Will it increase the region's total greenhouse-gas emissions, or reduce them?
"We are totally committed to reducing emissions, but it requires rethinking the way we do our activities," Sims explained. "People are saying, 'But we've always done it this way.' We're saying, 'That way doesn't work in an age of global warming.' "
Officials in King County and other places are rethinking the way their communities grow and operate, all with an eye toward reducing their overall carbon footprint. After decades of policies that encouraged people to move out to the suburbs in pursuit of larger homes and bigger back yards, some policymakers are now pushing aggressively to increase urban density and discourage the use of private cars.
In Massachusetts, the state demands that developers calculate and disclose the climate impact of their projects. In California, Attorney General Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. has sued communities and power companies for failing to offset the greenhouse gases generated by their expansion plans. And Washington, D.C., officials are installing a new trolley line and bike rental kiosks in an effort to cut back on car trips within the city.
Even though national politicians are beginning to eye a federal carbon cap more seriously, the flurry of activity in state and local jurisdictions highlights a little-noticed reality: Most of the measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions will be enacted outside the nation's capital.
"The vehicle for delivery, in terms of achieving greenhouse-gas reductions, is often going to be the states," said Ian A. Bowles, Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs. "It's going to happen through things like building codes, utilities and zoning."
But not without occasional resistance. Brown has sued entities as varied as San Bernardino County and petroleum giant ConocoPhillips to hold them accountable for the impact of their growth on the state's greenhouse-gas releases. He reached settlements with both last year: San Bernardino officials agreed to estimate the county's 1990 and current emissions levels, analyze how its land-use decisions will affect its emissions by 2020, and develop a plan to cut emissions stemming from its land-use policies and government operations. ConocoPhillips agreed to pay the state $10 million to offset the climate impact of expanding its oil refinery in Rodeo, Calif.
Brown, however, acknowledges that government alone cannot change where Americans decide to live and work. "It really takes a sea change in attitude, a shift in how the urban and suburban are perceived," he said in an interview. "It's not something that government can just mandate without a change in how the public views it. You can't just order it into being."
Some public officials are relying more on incentives than penalties to reduce sprawl. Bowles, who noted that Massachusetts has 351 cities and towns that each set their own zoning laws, said state officials are hoping that requiring developers to disclose their emissions will encourage them to build more efficient projects.
"It's a lighter touch," he said, adding that officials can drag out the permitting process if they decide a developer is not cooperating. "At its core, it's an analytic requirement that says, 'Find ways to reduce your emissions.' "
Harriet Tregoning, director of the D.C. Office of Planning, said Washington is operating on "a pleasure principle," meaning that steps taken to reduce emissions should also make the city more attractive to tourists and full-time residents.
"We're not doing it solely for greenhouse-gas benefits. Our goal is to be a globally competitive city," Tregoning said. "If a low-carbon lifestyle is a lifestyle of deprivation and denial, we're going to have a hard time."