On August 3rd, President Obama released the most ambitious carbon-reduction rule in U.S. history. In his words, it is “the single most important step that America has ever made in the fight against global climate change.” The Clean Power Plan aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation to 32 percent below 2012 levels by the year 2030, and it set state-by-state targets in order to accomplish this goal. Washington State’s goal is a 37 percent reduction over this time period. But because of its leadership in reducing carbon and our abundance of no- or low-carbon electricity, Washington will already meet its obligations under the new rule.
Why will Washington already comply with a standard that other states are sure to struggle to meet 15 years from now? The abundance of hydropower combined with the use of nuclear power, aggressive deployment of renewable energy, and low-carbon natural gas has given our state the 4th-lowest carbon-emitting electricity generation in the nation. And it’s on pace to get even lower. Washington’s last remaining coal plant is scheduled to phase out of service in 2020 and be shut down in 2025. The plant is the single-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the state, and its removal from service will reduce Washington’s carbon footprint even further.
Washington is a national leader in the generation of renewable energy. The U.S. Department of Energy calculates that the state’s renewable energy represents 92 percent of its overall generation, which comes primarily from hydropower, wind and biomass. The American Wind Energy Association ranks Washington 9th in the nation for installed generating capacity from wind. The industrial sector in Washington has significantly reduced their carbon profile by using wood debris and other biomass to generate electricity at their plants. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, annual carbon emissions from Washington’s electric power are now 6.15 MMTCO2, below the 7.51 MMTCO2 emission levels we experienced in 1990. This is despite a 43 percent increase in population since 1990 and an economy that has more than doubled in size.
But there’s something broader and more fundamental at work. According to the Washington Department of Ecology, the state’s Greenhouse Gas emissions are merely 3 percentage points higher than the levels we saw in 1990. In 2008, Washington adopted a goal to reduce our Greenhouse Gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020, and we’re on track to meet that goal. Employers across the state embraced this challenge by investing heavily in plant efficiencies to reduce the carbon intensity of manufacturing and upgrading their buildings to reduce energy use. Washington’s industrial sector now emits 21 percent less carbon dioxide than it did in 1990.
State policies that establish goals and then partner with employers and Washington families to achieve them have proven to be extremely successful. They have allowed Washington residents in every corner of the state to act on their environmental values, but in a way that conforms to the unique needs of their family or business. Governor Inslee is advocating for rigid, top-down government solutions like his cap-and-trade tax plan and carbon cap rule through the Department of Ecology. At a time when these costly policies are being debated, it’s good to remind ourselves how much progress we’ve made as a state and the kinds of policies that have produced that success.