The past year has made it clear that states cannot rely on the federal government to spearhead our nation’s fight against greenhouse-gas emissions. It is time for Washington state politicians to step up.
When it comes to combating the global threat of climate change, waiting for the federal government to act isn’t working.
With President Donald Trump withdrawing the United States from the international Paris climate agreement, the burden unequivocally falls on states to lead.
Even a relatively clean state like Washington cannot hide from the carbon-dioxide emissions warming our planet, contributing to unprecedented wildfire seasons and creating the acidic waters that are killing shellfish along our shores.
State Sens. Reuven Carlyle of Seattle and Guy Palumbo of Maltby have stepped up with a carbon tax plan modified from Gov. Jay Inslee’s latest proposal. As proposed, the carbon tax would dedicate most of its revenue toward combating climate change and its effects.
State officials warn Washington is not on track to meet its emissions reduction targets for 2020 and beyond. These statewide carbon-reduction goals, adopted by the Legislature in 2008, involve bringing the state’s emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2035 — a much lower standard than what the United States initially agreed to in the 2015 Paris climate accord.
Inslee’s plan to enact a carbon tax starting at $20 per metric ton of emissions would put the state on a path to meet and most likely exceed the state targets. That’s according to a state Department of Commerce modeling tool. Carlyle’s version of the plan would enact a starting tax rate of $10 per ton of emissions in mid-2019, rising to $30 per ton by 2030, and would also move the state in that direction.
The current proposal is different from several previous carbon-tax attempts in that its revenues will not be used to help balance the state’s general fund budget, or to reduce other taxes. Instead, the money would be spent largely on efforts that must show measurable reductions in emissions, as well as mitigate effects of wildfires, flooding, ocean acidification and other phenomena connected to climate change. These are projects that will deliver tangible benefits to Washington state residents now and into the future.
Carlyle’s bill also wisely includes several provisions to help low-income individuals who might be hurt by the tax. People earning up to 80 percent of their area’s median income, or up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, would have their increased utility costs completely offset using a portion of the tax revenues. The bill also includes a rebate on car tabs that could offset low-income drivers’ annual increase in gas costs.
Even better are the accountability provisions baked in. Key to the plan’s success is that the money from the tax goes toward projects that are actually effective at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Regular auditing of projects, as well as strict requirements that money be spent on emissions reductions beyond what utilities and businesses are already planning, will help achieve this goal. Carlyle’s bill also adds an oversight committee of elected officials to ensure state agencies are administering the program efficiently.
Detractors say it could devastate the economy. But British Columbia continued to prosper even after its carbon tax was introduced in 2008. So has California, which instituted carbon-pricing in the form of a cap-and-trade system, as well as Sweden, which has had a carbon tax in place since 1991.
Washington is far from the United States’ biggest polluter — yet our emissions per capita still are higher than in eight other states, as well as many European countries.
Carlyle’s bill carefully exempts many industries that lawmakers are worried could leave the state. But lawmakers should ensure the final plan covers enough of the state’s polluters to remain effective.
One thing is certain: Tackling complex, long-term problems in a thoughtful way is a job best handled by the Legislature, not a voter-approved initiative, which is in the offing.
Environmental groups plan to put a carbon-pricing plan on the ballot this November. The Legislature has a choice: Gamble that voters will approve a plan that carefully balances the state’s economic-development concerns with its climate-change goals, or take action now.
They would be smart to do the latter. It is time for more of our elected leaders to join Inslee, Carlyle and Palumbo in giving this major issue the attention and care it deserves.