State’s climate change efforts fall short

Collapse of cap-and-trade system makes 2020 goal unlikely

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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Washington won’t meet its first state-mandated target for reducing greenhouse gases, warns a new report to the Legislature by the Department of Ecology.

Did you know?

Eighty-five percent of Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions are produced by burning fossil fuels. Transportation is the state’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In 2008, the transportation sector produced 45.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, nearly half the state’s total emissions load.

The main reason: Both regional and national efforts to establish a cap-and-trade system regulating emissions, the heart of the state’s strategy, have collapsed.

On the issue of climate change, the political landscape has changed dramatically since 2008, the new report notes.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledged to push for cap-and-trade legislation putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions. But he backed away from that pledge in 2009 in the face of Republican opposition. And though his new budget calls for investments in clean energy, the budget document itself doesn’t mention cap-and-trade.

A regional cap-and-trade approach Washington favored also has been abandoned, at least for now.

In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a finding that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health. That finding gave the agency the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions as a pollutant. But the EPA “endangerment rule” is under attack from the Republican leadership in Congress.

State Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, introduced the first cap-and-trade bill in the Legislature in 2007, two weeks after the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that evidence of global warming was now “unequivocal” and that human activity — ­primarily the burning of fossil fuels — was a major cause.

Pridemore said the failure to put in place a market-based solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is disheartening.

“The cap-and-trade piece was the centerpiece,” he said. “The lack of that makes any meaningful progress pretty hopeless.”

He attributed loss of support for the market-based approach in part to the struggling economy.

“A majority of citizens today believe that climate change is not real,” he said. “The worst thing for the environment is a recession.”

In its new report, “Path to a Low-Carbon Economy,” Ecology assessed the state’s progress three years after the Legislature put the state’s emission reduction targets into state law — and found it lagging.

Gov. Chris Gregoire adopted the targets by executive order in 2007. In 2008, the Legislature passed legislation that commits the state to reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020; to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2025; and to half of 1990 levels by 2050.

That first target is now out of reach, the report found.

In 2008, all sources combined produced an estimated 101.1 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, a 9 percent increase over 1990 levels. Ecology officials now predict that emission-reduction policies the state has already implemented, including actions by state agencies, “will result in relatively constant emissions between now and 2020.”

“Unfortunately, this means that the state is not on track to meet its statutory reduction limit for 2020 and beyond,” the report says.

The targets set in 2008 “were centered on implementing the emissions trading program designed by the Western Climate Initiative,” a regional effort developed by seven western states, including Washington, and four Canadian provinces, the report notes. “But, after debate at the state and federal level, lawmakers have not implemented the centerpiece of the 2008 comprehensive plan: an economy-wide emissions trading program.”

Under cap-and-trade, government agencies set an overall limit on emissions of the gases that contribute to climate change and allow polluters to develop their own strategies for reducing emissions within that cap. Participating polluters can trade the right to emit on a regional or national exchange.

In 2009, after the Legislature failed to adopt the regional emissions trading program, Gregoire directed her agencies to take other steps to curb emissions.

Those include working with large industrial sources to reduce their emissions voluntarily; evaluating whether to adopt a low-carbon fuel standard for the transportation sector; and negotiating with TransAlta, the state’s only coal-fired electrical plant, to cut emissions in half at its plant near Centralia.

Under an agreement negotiated with the governor, Canadian-owned TransAlta will make the transition to a cleaner source of energy by 2025. A bill that passed the Senate Environment, Water and Energy Committee on Friday would transition the plant off coal as early as 2020 and provide some transition help for coal plant workers and the community.

Pridemore favors the Senate bill. The TransAlta plant “is the single largest source of man-made greenhouse gas emissions in the state,” he said. “It’s critical that we move away from that. I would like to see it speeded up.”

Trying to win voluntary emission-reduction agreements from major industries has been only partially successful, the Ecology report said. Companies cite lack of capital and an uncertain regulatory environment as major barriers to their emission reduction efforts.

With a $22 million federal grant, the state also is working to create a corridor for electric vehicles the length of Interstate 5, with plug-in recharge stations at regular intervals. The grant would fund the construction of up to 2,000 charging stations over the next two years.

Other threats

In its report, Ecology lists several threats climate change poses to Washington’s environment and economy:

•  Reduced snowpack will continue to decrease summer water availability and increase competition among water users.

•  Human-released carbon dioxide is being absorbed by the oceans, changing the chemistry of sea water and making it more acidic. “Washington oceans are particularly susceptive to acidification, which may already be affecting Hood Canal, Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor,” the report said. Increased acidification threatens the food chain by affecting a variety of marine organisms, especially those that form shells, and those who in turn support herring, salmon, even whales.

•  Washington can expect its average temperature to increase by 3.2 degrees by 2040, according to an assessment compiled by the University of Washington’s Climate Impact Group.

• Warmer and drier summers will double or triple the average annual acreage burned by forest fires.

• Rising sea levels will threaten ports in Seattle, Tacoma and other low-lying coastal areas.

• Significant increases in spring snowmelt in the Cascades will alter seasonal stream flows, affecting fish passage in some sensitive watersheds, such as the Yakima River.

“If greenhouse gases continue unchecked,” the report warns, “changes in Washington temperature, water availability and sea level will exacerbate current environmental problems and create new ones.”

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.