Is BI ‘greenwashing’ climate change?

We generally think of “greenwashing” as exaggerated claims by corporations about supposedly sustainable and climate-friendly products. That’s unfair to companies that hold themselves to high standards.

President Biden is being urged to hold the greenwashers accountable by requiring proof of their sustainability and climate-friendly claims. Greenwashing, however, isn’t just a private sector thing. For proof, look no further than our supposedly climate-friendly and supposedly sustainable city of BI.

To be fair, COBI has embraced environmental sustainability over the past few years with such things as progressive tree protections, funding for a groundwater management plan, a new Climate Change Advisory Committee, a Climate Action Plan, a Sustainable Transportation Plan and measures to reduce plastic waste. But what has all of that added up to in terms of overall progress?

Protection for trees

Acres of trees, native vegetation and soils have been protected from wholesale clearing and grading by the city’s Aquifer Recharge Protection Area Requirement. Critical areas protections, in general, have measurable benefits but are too often weakened by inconsistent administration and loopholes like Reasonable Use Exceptions.

Groundwater Management Plan

In 2014 citizens called for a GWMP, and it became a high-priority action item in the 2016 comprehensive plan. Seen as one metric for measuring BI’s carrying capacity, with the potential to limit future growth, the city has done its best to delay development of the GWMP. Maybe BI’s GWMP will become an action item in the 2024 comprehensive plan.

Climate Change Advisory Committee

Created in 2017, the CCAC advises the city on such climate-related work as greenhouse gas emissions targets, the Climate Action Plan, and progress toward meeting targets. Recent work includes: 1) development of a climate lens; 2) Puget Sound Energy’s franchise agreement; 3) evaluating sea level rise; 4) a bio-digester, and; 4) measuring transportation projects emissions. All of this work checks a lot of climate boxes but after six years there’s no evidence it’s translated into an overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate Action Plan

An impressive document, CAP was authored by the CCAC and approved by the City Council in 2020. It lays out ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions on BI: Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2045 compared to 2014 levels with interim milestones of 25% reduction by 2025 and 60% by 2035.

Given those goals are central to BI’s CAP, you might expect the 2022 Climate Action Plan Progress Report to provide an update on progress toward meeting them, but it doesn’t.

Why not? Well, because there’s no progress to report. More programs and projects, yes. Overall emission reductions, no. That disconnect will become more obvious over time.

COBI’s ‘climate lens’

In 2017 the City Council approved a resolution affirming COBI’s commitment to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement calling for emissions to be cut by roughly 50% by 2030. In 2020 a climate emergency resolution followed, calling for development of a “climate lens” for evaluating all of the city’s plans with a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For its “climate lens,” the city chose a Climate Change Adaptation Certification Tool offered by a local nonprofit. That “tool” focuses almost entirely on adaptation to climate change with minimal analysis of emissions. One has to wonder if the lack of emphasis on emissions associated with COBI’s plans and projects influenced the tool’s selection.

Sustainable Transportation Plan

The name suggests the $300,000 plan is all about sustainability. The idea is that anything related to non-motorized transportation—no matter how many trees are removed, no matter the emissions required to build it, and regardless of whether or not any emissions are actually reduced as a result—is “sustainable.”

Welcome to the bizzaro-world of nonmotorized greenwashing where all nonmotorized projects are magically “sustainable” because they prevent funding from being spent on other supposedly less-sustainable projects. Meanwhile, no actual metrics have been identified for evaluating the sustainability of the Sustainable Transportation Plan, and they probably never will be.

A model

COBI’s climate greenwashing is elaborate, and it’s effective: not in reducing our overall greenhouse gas emissions, but in creating the all-important illusion. COBI gets to check all the green boxes while at the same time protecting its overall mission of promoting growth.