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Originally published December 3, 2009 at 4:10 PM | Page modified December 3, 2009 at 6:16 PM

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Guest columnist

Seattle can lead the world as a carbon-neutral city

Though world leaders might delay action on a climate-change agreement at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, guest columnists Craig Curtis and Lisa Richmond say Seattle shouldn't wait. Seattle can lead the way.

Special to The Times

THE challenge is enormous: make Seattle the first carbon neutral city in North America by 2030.

At a recent lecture, Worldchanging's Alex Steffen challenged Seattle's new mayor, Mike McGinn, to set the bar high. Steffan is a keynote speaker at the Copenhagen Mayoral Climate Summit being held alongside the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Is it possible? And should we even try?

Our answer to both questions is "yes."

Recent news that global leaders will delay action on a climate-change agreement at the Copenhagen conference only underscores the critical need for local leadership on environmental issues.

Aligning the city's agenda with the goal of carbon neutrality makes sense, not just environmentally, but socially and economically.

What if the pursuit of carbon neutrality became the organizing principle of all our municipal policymaking? As an indicator of environmental health — just as salmon recovery is to ecosystem restoration — using carbon as a yardstick would require a host of policies that more broadly promote the beautiful, equitable, livable city we all want.

It's common knowledge that we need to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint to reduce global warming. However, many are not aware that buildings contribute roughly 40 percent of our greenhouse-gas emissions.

Local architects are national leaders in the design of energy-efficient and even zero-energy buildings. As a group we have committed to a goal of carbon neutrality in buildings by the year 2030 — a national effort called the 2030 Challenge.

The American Institute of Architects Seattle has made a tremendous investment in training to give architects the skills they need to deliver on this challenge by developing an in-depth training program now being adopted nationally. We can help make it easier to get to net-zero with new construction, as well as retrofitting existing buildings.

For almost any sector of municipal policy, a focus on carbon neutrality will pay significant dividends. How does a carbon focus relate to something like education? By supporting local schools, crossing guards to discourage vehicle use, or by retrofitting aging school buildings. How about carbon and health? Invest in preventive strategies like parks and bike paths. There is ample evidence showing these elements lead to a healthier lifestyle, just by being convenient.

How about carbon and crime? Compact, connected communities with "eyes on the street" and community-binding features such as community gardens help deter criminal behavior and reduce emissions.

Economically, for these policies to work, they must make business sense. By reaching out to the private sector (including our Seattle-area contingent of environmentally aware developers), promoting incentives for pedestrian-focused development, Seattle will increase the chance of these policies succeeding. Additionally, this carbon-neutral policy alignment matches Gov. Chris Gregoire's focus on developing green jobs.

So what's standing in the way? Political will. Even in Seattle, whose residents largely share a commitment to progressive environmental policy, taking the strong political point of view required to promote such an ambitious platform has proved difficult. What's needed is nothing short of challenging our policymaking infrastructure by forging partnerships from Seattle City Council to Olympia to support bold, focused goals that filter down to every layer of government.

For years, Seattle has been a national leader on environmental issues. For example, with the leadership of Seattle architects, Washington became the first state to enact legislation mandating certified green state buildings. Why shouldn't Seattle lead the way by becoming the first carbon-neutral city in the nation?

If Mayor-Elect McGinn is ready to commit to a carbon-neutral future, we're behind him.

Craig Curtis, left, is a principal at Miller Hull Partnership, an architecture firm recognized nationally for its sustainable design. Lisa Richmond is executive director of the American Institute of Architects Seattle.

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