Washington’s Initiative 732: Important Lessons for Supporters of Carbon Pricing

, Western states policy manager | September 30, 2016, 1:51 pm EDT
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The Union of Concerned Scientists is a strong supporter of pricing the heat-trapping emissions causing climate change, and we have a history of advocating for a price on carbon in Washington State. Yet UCS has decided to take no position on a ballot measure this November that would establish a carbon tax in Washington, Initiative 732. It was a tough decision for our organization and we wanted to share our thinking about this issue with our members.

A price on carbon would help reduce emissions from large emitters in Washignton. Photo: Scott Butler / Flickr

A price on carbon would help reduce emissions from large emitters in Washignton. Photo: Scott Butler / Flickr

Carbon pricing is an important tool to address climate change

The top reason to put a price on carbon emissions through a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program is that it helps integrate climate risks into the cost of doing business, leading to fewer emissions that heat our atmosphere. Carbon pricing forces the costs of climate impacts and the value of low-carbon technologies to be better reflected in decisions businesses make about what to produce and consumers make about what to buy. UCS has strongly supported the establishment of other carbon pricing programs in the U.S., namely California’s multi-sector cap-and-trade program and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the nine-state cap-and-trade program for power plant emissions in the northeast. These programs have proven to be a valuable complement to other carbon-reducing policies, such as standards for renewable energy, more energy efficient buildings and appliances, more fuel-efficient cars, and lower-carbon fuels.

While carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs are powerful policy tools, not all programs are created equal. As a science-based organization, our biggest concern is whether the policy covers enough emissions sources and is stringent enough to result in significant emission reductions. (UCS believes the United States should be on a path to reach net zero carbon emissions by mid-century, in line with the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.) There are many other important design considerations, but often the stickiest revolve around how revenues from a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program are utilized. Is money used to help low-income households defray potentially increased energy costs? What about investing in clean energy and vehicle technologies in communities hardest hit from pollution? Or supporting a transition for workers and communities that depend on fossil fuels for their livelihoods?  Are these objectives met through direct investments or changes in taxes? These are all important distributional considerations that shape the underlying fairness of a program.

I-732 is designed as a revenue-neutral carbon tax

There are clearly things to like about Initiative 732, the carbon tax on the ballot in Washington. The measure would impose a carbon tax on fossil fuels used in the state (including electricity generated out-of-state), starting at $15 per ton of carbon dioxide in 2017, increasing to $25 per ton in 2018, and automatically increasing at 3.5 percent plus inflation annually until reaching a price of $100 per ton (in 2016 dollars). This would be a strong price signal to reduce emissions. (In comparison, pollution permits in the California cap-and-trade program are currently selling for around $13 per ton.) In exchange, the measure would reduce two taxes: the state sales tax would decline by one percent over two years and the business and occupations tax for manufacturers would be eliminated. In addition, the measure would fund the Working Families Tax Credit to reduce the tax burden on low-income families. In all, the measure is designed to be revenue-neutral, with the tax cuts and tax credits cancelling out the new revenue from the carbon tax.

I-732 offers lessons for future carbon pricing debates

I-732 would be a significant step to reduce heat-trapping emissions in Washington and yet many pro-climate organizations have deep concerns about the measure. Washington-based environmental groups have withheld their support (e.g., Climate Solutions, Sierra Club’s Washington Chapter, Washington Environmental Council), while environmental justice and social equity organizations (e.g., Front and Centered, One America) and representatives of workers (e.g., Washington State Labor Council) are actively opposing the measure. These allies have argued that I-732 fails to adequately invest in communities disproportionately impacted by fossil fuel pollution, as well as workers in heavily polluting or energy-intensive industries. In addition, the state’s official analysis estimates that the measure would actually be revenue-negative.

Carbon Washington—the non-profit leading the campaign for I-732—has provided rebuttals to the issues opponents have raised. However, the adequacy of the arguments is not all that matters. It is clear that there is also friction over the process by which Carbon Washington developed I-732, with some stakeholders feeling they were not included. Amid this heated debate, UCS realized that it would be presumptuous for us, an organization based outside of Washington, to disregard the strong feelings of pro-climate  and equity-centered groups based inside the state who are withholding their support. Under these circumstances, we decided that this is a debate that should be settled by Washingtonians.

As fraught as the I-732 debate is, I have drawn important lessons from the experience. Most important, it is critical to work in inclusive and transparent partnerships with allies and stakeholders in any policy initiative. A diversity of voices is crucial to crafting a strong, fair policy solution, and it is important to build political support. For these reasons, UCS has been a partner for nearly two years of the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, a coalition of businesses, unions, communities of color, environmental, health and faith groups working to tackle climate change in Washington.

We must “go fast” and “go together”

There is a well-known African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I couldn’t agree more. And yet that truism runs right up against the frightening urgency of addressing climate change. It is in this healthy tension that we—as organizations and advocates working to address climate change—must operate. We must go fast and far to protect our planet, but we must work together if we are to succeed.

I encourage all our supporters and members in Washington to review the measure and arguments and make their own decision about how to best move Washington forward to tackle climate change. Regardless of what happens on election day, UCS will remain a faithful partner in moving Washington forward to protect our climate.

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  • disqus_KjYHkLQZgw

    We don’t need african proverbs, we need action and moral clarity. I-732 will reduce carbon and improve the lives of low income people by making the tax code fairer. I’m voting yes.

  • disqus_KjYHkLQZgw

    This position is an epic cop-out.

  • Polymerase

    Win or lose, I-732 has already done us a tremendous service
    by helping actual Concerned Scientists like me to distinguish between 1) organizations
    that we can count on to really deal with the looming, utter catastrophe of anthropogenic
    climate change from 2) organizations such as UCS who are now revealing themselves
    to be primarily concerned with maintaining their position within the
    Eco-Rhetorical Complex of environmental non-profits.

    I just spent 10 hours today in a laboratory running a
    reactor, trying to make progress on renewable diesel and jet fuel. I don’t have time to devote to the environmental
    advocacy work that I want to do as well, so I have been in the habit of
    donating to groups such as UCS to do that work on my behalf. Now, at midnight, I am disgusted to read that
    the Western States Policy Manager of the UCS is taking “No Position” on the
    most aggressive carbon-pricing policy proposal in North America, a policy
    proposal that has taken real form as a ballot initiative and has a very good
    chance of becoming law on November 1st.

    Jason – if you are taking “No Position” on I-732, what exactly
    is it that you are paid to do at UCS as Western States Policy Manager? Above,
    you state that it would be presumptuous for you to “disregard the strong
    feelings of pro-climate and equity-centered groups based inside the state
    who are withholding their support.” Are
    you saying that, even though Washington is a “Western State”, you have no obligation
    to objectively evaluate the evidence yourself and take a position on I-732, and
    that you feel justified in withholding your support for I-732 because your
    friends at the major establishment non-profits in Seattle are against it? In your job, do you feel no obligation to
    consider the “strong feelings” of the 365,000 “Western-State” Washingtonians
    who signed the petitions to get I-732 onto the ballot, and who (like me) desperately
    want to save their children and grandchildren from the ravages of rapid,
    anthropogenic climate change? How much time do you think we have to punt on
    taking real action?

    The meandering, wishy-washy “teach the controversy” tone of
    your blog post is not helpful. We need
    leaders, not Hamlets. If, as you
    suggest, there are lessons to be learned from the sabotaging of I-732 by
    Climate Solutions, the WEC, and the Sierra Club (see the 9/30 Seattle Times for
    details on their machinations), it is that that special interest groups, once
    they get into a position of power or influence, will do just about anything – even
    betray their core mission, as UCS is doing now – to maintain their privileged
    position. It has been a sad lesson to

  • Aaron

    The 2016 election is our best chance to pass an initiative that fights climate change and alleviates poverty. A recent report by CarbonBrief says that we have five years until we can no longer keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the best hope for reducing impacts on food production and vulnerable ecosystems. We cannot afford to wait. We have a moral responsibility to act on climate now, build momentum for strong, national bi-partisan climate policy, and vote Yes on I-732 in November.

  • rheanna

    Going far and going fast should and is the goal. Nothing about I732 prevents us from doing more and passing further and more progressive climate policies down the line. It is deeply frustrating and disappointing to see so many groups ignore (and even oppose) that we have a really great chance to get a strong and effective climate policy passed in favor of waiting and doing nothing. We have waited and done nothing for too long already.

  • ben

    I-732 was created and continually pushed forward by a Union of Concerned Millennials who will actually inherit this crisis. They are fighting for their own futures because virtually every politically entrenched group won’t support the first, best, and only climate policy on the WA state ballot. Imagine having dozens and dozens of young passionate high schoolers (who can’t vote but volunteer full time) asking you “why is the Union of Concerned Scientists not supporting this?” This is what I deal with 7 days a week. They won’t forget about this betrayal. https://medium.com/@AlexLenferna/setting-the-record-straight-on-washingtons-carbon-tax-initiative-i-732-7aae26b39526#.x5wmkoz9v

    • disqus_KjYHkLQZgw

      Yes, young people in Washington (and around the world) who realize we are running out of time are going to feel let down by this wishy washy decision. I certainly feel let down.

  • JimL

    Wow. Gutless. I am extremely disappointed in UCSUSA. You know that we need a carbon tax as soon as possible and you’re throwing this chance away for no alternative?

  • Cliff Mass

    This is a total cop-out by UCS. They admit the 732 is good policy. Aggressive in reducing carbon emissions and good for making WA State taxation less regressive. Yet they don’t support it because a few groups feel CarbonWa was not “inclusive” enough. Totally disappointing. We have a real chance to make major progress on climate change in a bipartisan way, but groups like UCS, the Sierra Club, and the Washington Environmental Council are willing to throw it all away for their political aims. As I like to call it, this will be your Nader Moment. Nader made Bush President. You will destroy any chance of progress on climate change.

    • Jason Barbose

      Cliff, I am sorry that our lack of a position on the ballot measure is such a disappointment to you. I can appreciate that it is frustrating. (although, to be honest, I’m not sure UCS’s lack of support is really tipping the scales.) As I mention in the post, it was a tough decision, but we concluded that as a national organization with no full-time staff in Washington it would be inappropriate to parachute in and tell Washington-based groups how to design carbon policy. I recognize you do not agree with us, and I accept that. I wish the dynamic was not so toxic as we hope to continue to work constructively with you and others in the future. Best, Jason

      • JimL

        Jason, This was a chance for UCS to lead on this crucial need for a price on carbon. Instead, you chose not to really study the issue and take a stand. I-732 was put together by climate economists that have devoted much of their professional lives to this issue. You could have used UCS expertise to really weigh in.