While the majority of Washingtonians are worried about climate change and support taking steps to reduce heat-trapping emissions, it’s no secret that the state has struggled to adopt many big-ticket policies on this issue. (Voters rejected initiatives in 2016 and 2018 to place fees on the state’s biggest emitters of global warming emissions; the Legislature has failed to pass previous proposals from Gov. Inslee to put a price on emissions, and a court also struck down an Inslee administration regulation tackling emissions.) However, I’m not one to linger on past failure, and fortunately this year has brought new opportunities that give me hope Washington lawmakers will seize the moment and take much-needed steps to curtail the state’s global warming emissions.
Washington needs to move quicker on climate
Two recent reports paint a clear picture of why Washington so urgently needs to change course on climate change. In October, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the UN body responsible for assessing science related to climate change—released a special report outlining the impacts of a global average temperature increase of 1.5°C versus 2°C (above pre-industrial levels), and pathways to limit temperature increases to that level. The report’s findings highlight that the next decade is critical for making dramatic cuts in heat-trapping emissions and that emissions around the world will need to reach net-zero by mid-century to keep global average temperatures from crossing dangerous thresholds.
More recently, Washington’s Department of Ecology released the latest inventory of climate change emissions in the state through 2015. The report shows that emissions climbed more than 6% between 2012 and 2015, with increases from transportation and electricity generation. While some factors are outside of policymakers’ control (e.g., 2015 was a drought year with lower than typical electrical generation from hydroelectric dams), the numbers do not paint a picture of a state heading quickly in the right direction. Hopefully the juxtaposition of these findings further motivates lawmakers to take serious action in 2019.
Creating a market for cleaner transportation fuels
Emissions from transportation represent the largest portion of global warming emissions in Washington (42.5%). There are many strategies needed to significantly cut these emissions and one of the biggest is cleaning up Washington’s fuel supply. UCS is strongly supporting House Bill 1110, which would create a clean fuel standard. The standard would require petroleum refineries and fuel importers to reduce the average carbon intensity of the fuels they sell in Washington by 10 percent by 2028 (compared to 2017).
Refineries and fuel importers could meet the standard by blending low-carbon biofuels into the gasoline or diesel they sell and by purchasing credits generated by providers of lower-carbon fuels, including electricity, renewable diesel, and renewable natural gas.
The standard would create a dependable market for cleaner fuels, facilitating steady investment into research, development, and deployment of low-carbon fuels that are necessary to fully decarbonize the transportation sector in coming decades. Similar programs exist in California and Oregon and a recent expert analysis showed enough clean fuels would be available by 2028 to meet the proposal in House Bill 1110. I am personally excited that a clean fuels program would support investments to speed the transition to electric vehicles, which is playing a growing role in cleaning up our transportation fuel system.
Phasing out fossil fuels from electricity generation
While Washington produces a lot of electricity cleanly from hydropower, the state also uses electricity from coal and natural gas. In 2015 these fossil fuels supplied about 30% of Washington’s electricity, representing about a fifth of the state’s total global warming emissions. Senate Bill 5116 and House Bill 1211 would ban electricity produced from coal by 2025 and require that all electricity sold in the state be generated from renewable and carbon-free sources by 2045. Fortunately, the cost of renewable energy has dramatically declined in the past decade. In fact, clean energy like solar and wind power is now cheaper than natural gas, coal, or nuclear power.
Supplying all of Washington’s electricity from renewable and zero-carbon sources is a bold goal, but achieving it is within reach. Key strategies for eliminating fossil fuels include more efficient use of electricity, greater use of energy storage technologies, access to a wider and more diverse supply of renewable technologies, increased flexibility of electricity users to shift demand, and better coordination of renewable resources among Western states.
Momentum is building among states, cities, and utilities to commit to 100% clean electricity. In September, California adopted a law committing to 100% zero-carbon electricity by 2045. Then, in December, Xcel Energy, one of the country’s largest electric utilities, announced it would supply all of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050. Washington already has a leg-up toward reaching this goal thanks to its abundant supply of carbon-free hydropower. Now is the time for the state to stake its future to an electricity supply free of fossil fuels.
More opportunities on electric vehicles, efficient buildings, and “super” pollutants
Washington legislators have introduced many additional bills that would address different pieces of the state’s climate change puzzle. A few that I am most closely following relate to:
- Electric vehicles: SB 5336 would further promote electric vehicles (EVs) by requiring automakers to offer an increasing share of EVs for sale, authorizing electric utilities to build EV charging infrastructure, and renewing an expired EV sales tax credit.
- Energy efficiency of buildings: SB 5293 and HB 1257 would help create more energy efficient buildings by setting new standards for large, commercial buildings and allowing local governments to adopt better codes for new residential construction, among other provisions.
- “Super” pollutants: HB 1112 would cut emissions of a highly-potent category of heat-trapping gases used in refrigeration, known as hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs.
There is no shortage of opportunities for Washington to act on climate change in 2019. Lawmakers have stepped up to the plate by offering many important proposals. The question is whether they succeed in passing these bills to notch some important victories for our climate—Washington, I’m rooting for you!