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Governor Inslee is leading the race against climate change. Other governors should keep up.

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  • May 18, 2021 12:00 am GMT
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By Pam Kiely

This post was co-authored by Katelyn Roedner Sutter, Senior Manager, U.S. Climate at EDF

 

Washington state just officially became the country’s frontrunner on climate action. On Monday, Governor Inslee signed a landmark cap-and-invest bill, called the Climate Commitment Act, which sets the most ambitious limit on climate pollution of any state in the nation. The bill will rapidly drive down emissions in line with Washington’s science-based, climate goals: 45% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 95% by 2050. And in addition to putting the state on the path to a safer climate, the Climate Commitment Act makes crucial steps toward improving local air quality.

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Washington’s game-changing legislation arrives at a critical moment for the climate crisis. President Biden has just pledged to cut national emissions 50-52% by 2030, recapturing U.S. climate leadership on the global stage ahead of a major UN climate convening at the end of the year. But it will take serious work to meet this national commitment — a sharp and unwavering focus on putting a policy framework in place that is capable of fully ensuring that pollution declines at the pace and scale required. Washington state is showing exactly how that is done.

The role of state-led action on climate remains vital in meeting this collective challenge too. While Washington state is one of many states to make climate pledges over the past four years, it is one of the few states that is actually delivering policy action to meet them. With the Climate Commitment Act now signed into law, this legislation should serve as a model for other states and for federal policymakers in crafting strong climate policy that 1) meets the urgency of the climate crisis and 2) is designed to make progress in addressing the disproportionate burden of pollution.

A policy that drives down emissions and drives up investment

The Climate Commitment Act shows states how to set the stage for strong and cost-effective cuts in pollution, by placing a binding and declining limit on greenhouse gas emissions across all major sectors of its economy. While Washington state already has a set of important climate policies in the power sector, buildings and transportation, the emissions limit is designed to critically shrink the gap remaining to hit the state’s emission reduction goals. It also serves as a backstop that provides the greatest possible certainty that Washington will meet its goals.

By putting a price on carbon pollution to help meet the limit, reductions in emissions can be made swiftly and cost-effectively, driving down emissions first where they are the lowest cost. Here’s how it works: Most businesses and facilities under the cap must purchase allowances — or emissions permits — to be in compliance with the program. Washington’s Department of Ecology will only create only as many allowances as the cap allows (one allowance per ton). This is where the carbon price is determined: the cost of purchasing an allowance at auction is set by the market. Therefore, as the limit declines every year, so do the number of allowances, driving reductions in pollution from businesses and facilities.

In other words, the cap and price on pollution act as a magnet, moving sectors across the economy all toward a clean, low-carbon future.

Washington’s program also takes lessons learned from previous cap-and-invest models, like California’s, by only allowing a very limited use of offsets as a means to reduce emissions (Ecology must reduce the number of allowances it issues to make up for allowed offset usage), and building in regular program reviews to make any necessary adjustments.

This model also drives up meaningful investments. The revenue raised from the program will be invested back into Washington’s communities through activities that build climate resilience, create clean energy jobs and improve local air quality. And of course, when applying this model in other states, investments can be tailored to the activities most meaningful to that particular state’s communities. Importantly, the Climate Commitment Act requires at least 35%, with a goal of 40%, of investments to provide direct and meaningful benefits to overburdened communities that are disproportionately burdened with environmental harms and health impacts.

Innovative tools to cut air pollution

Beyond aggressively cutting global climate pollution, the Climate Commitment Act puts an important focus on cutting local air pollution in overburdened communities.

The bill requires the Department of Ecology to identify communities in Washington with high cumulative pollution burdens, work with those communities to deploy air pollution monitors and conduct a review to determine levels of criteria pollutants in those communities. The Department of Ecology and local air agencies must then establish air quality targets that would eliminate disparities between overburdened communities and neighboring communities that are not overburdened and adopt new standards and regulations to meet those targets.

This is a powerful innovation that advances new tools for mitigating local air pollution in the same policy framework designed to tackle global climate pollution — and reinforces a standard for advancing these dual priorities concurrently.

The race is on for other climate leaders

At this point, 25 states and Puerto Rico have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, pledging to cut emissions in line with the U.S. Paris Agreement target for 2025. However, EDF analysis has shown that states with climate commitments are not on track to reduce their emissions in line with the 2025 goal or a 2030 goal consistent with the new NDC, when emissions should fall by more than half in order to reach net zero by mid-century.

Now that Washington state has shown how to move from pledge to policy, it’s time for other states to do the same. The adoption of binding limits on climate pollution will be key.

Here are a few key Western states that should follow Inslee’s lead and ramp up action on their commitments this year.

  • Oregon: Last year, Gov Brown took the critical step of directing Oregon agencies to turn goals into action and meet the state’s 2050 emissions target and an interim target of at least 45% below 1990 emissions levels by 2035. This executive order gave Oregon’s lead environmental agency the directive to develop regulations to “cap and reduce” emissions from the state’s major sources of climate pollution. With the Department of Environmental Quality poised to release draft regulations imminently, it will be essential to ensure that the regulations provide certainty that the Governor’s goals will be achieved.
  • Nevada: In December, Nevada released its inaugural State Climate Strategy, which included policy recommendations to reduce climate pollution from key sectors and recognized the need to consider an enforceable limit on emissions to ensure that the state meets its goals: achieving 28% below 2005 levels by 2025; 45% by 2030; and net-zero by 2050. Kudos for Gov Sisolak for initiating a rulemaking effort on Clean Car Standards that could lead to crucial clean air and economic benefits, but it’s time for Nevada to ramp up its focus on a comprehensive framework that is capable of securing reductions at the scope and scale required.
  • New Mexico: In 2019, Gov Lujan Grisham signed an executive order to reduce the state’s emissions 45% below 2005 levels by 2030. State agencies have started efforts toward that goal by finalizing rules to end routine methane venting and flaring, and advancing significantly improved rules to address methane and air pollution leaks from oil and gas development, the largest source of climate pollution in the state. However, the administration failed to support the effort this past legislative session to put those climate reduction targets into statute with a clear timeline for developing regulations. Gov Lujan Grisham can show continued leadership by initiating the stakeholder process promised last year to evaluate economy-wide solutions that can cut remaining emissions.
  • Colorado: Although Gov Polis signed a landmark law in 2019 to adopt regulations that reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050, Colorado remains far from securing economy-wide reductions consistent with its targets and blew past a July 2020 deadline for proposing regulations capable of meeting the goals. In fact, Gov Polis has publicly opposed and threatened to veto a bill currently moving forward in the state legislature that would provide a concrete deadline for finalizing regulations to cut pollution and set sector-specific emission limits.

There is also important momentum gaining on the east coast. Pennsylvania just released its final rule to put a binding, declining limit on carbon pollution from the state’s power sector — one of the dirtiest in the country — and participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a proven multi-state program. North Carolina has a petition to join this same program pending at their Environmental Management Commission; recent studies indicate that no other policy would cut pollution as efficiently in line with Governor Cooper’s commitments, and it is past time for him to clearly signal support for the pending petition. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia, have also taken a huge step forward in tackling climate pollution from the transportation sector by committing to participate in the Transportation and Climate Initiative Program. Legislation is pending in both CT and RI to authorize participation in the program, which would put a declining limit on carbon pollution from the transportation sector and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 26% from 2023 to 2032.

But no state is matching the pace and the scale that Governor Inslee is setting with the Climate Commitment Act, on top of its other strong climate policies. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker just signed a bold climate law, which aims to cut the state’s emissions in half by 2030 and to net-zero by 2050, and perhaps will be the next state to watch as its Department of Environmental Protection gets to work to develop the ambitious regulatory framework necessary to meet their economy-wide goals.

Like these states, the Biden-Harris Administration has made bold climate commitments, but will now need to back that commitment up with policy capable of delivering the necessary tons of reductions quickly. Washington, DC should look to Washington state for guidance on a policy model capable of achieving these results.

Governor Inslee and Washington state lawmakers are proving that leaders can go bigger and bolder on emissions, while making equity a central goal. Others should follow their lead.

Read this fact sheet to learn more about how the Climate Commitment Act can serve as a model for ambitious climate policy.

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