Seattle's Climate Protection Initiative (CPI) emerged from a real sense of urgency in the winter of 2004–2005, when snowfall in the Cascade Mountains near Seattle was dramatically low. Mayor Greg Nickels, and other city officials, realized that reduced snowmelt jeopardized the city's drinking water reservoirs and the power output of its hydroelectric turbines. Additionally, there were the risks of environmental dangers, such as increased incidence of wildfire. Recognizing the need for fundamental change, particularly in the absence of leadership at the federal level, the mayor and his allies decided to start a major shift in environmental priorities, beginning first in their own city.
The CPI consists of an array of individual efforts, ranging broadly in scope. Now, every time a tree is removed in Seattle for construction, two must be planted in its place; a commercial parking tax has been imposed to discourage drivers from parking downtown, and the revenue is used to promote public transportation in the city. All emissions resulting from work-related air travel by city employees are offset by investments in alternative energy. More public money is available for sustainable landscaping projects across the city, and for improvements to pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. The city has launched a biodiesel program, fostering the use of this cleaner fuel alternative by public buses, Washington State ferries, and city trucks.
Perhaps the most drastic improvement can be seen in the operation of Seattle City Light, which provides electricity to 370,000 residential and commercial customers in the city. It has become the first public utility in the country to achieve "zero net emissions" of greenhouse gases. Seattle City Light has done this through variety of methods: disinvesting in coal power, increasing holdings in wind power and conservation efforts, and balancing out all remaining pollution by purchasing emissions-cutting projects elsewhere (prefiguring the recent trend toward "carbon offsetting").
The city has already reduced its emissions by 60 percent since the initiative's inception, with strong support from business leaders playing a key role in the program's success. In addition to promoting change within his own city, Mayor Nickels has persuaded over 450 mayors across the country to sign on to a commitment to voluntarily reduce their emissions to those of the Kyoto Protocol. The U.S. Conference of Mayors represents nearly 54 million people, about 18 percent of the American population, and their efforts have encouraged even more jurisdictions to look seriously at their own consumption and pollution levels.