Earth Day in 1970 — a blink ago in the arc of history — unleashed a national voice of environmental consciousness. Seattle’s own Denis Hayes, a premier civic leader, served as national coordinator for the first Earth Day. It was based in many ways on tribal and Indigenous-framed values of environmental respect. That joint celebration and protest helped inspire a global song of awareness about sustainability that is now heard by millions of people worldwide.
This Earth Day, being celebrated Saturday, April 22, is a symbolic representation of our new era of climate action. We now have only 27 years to reach 2050, the date that scientists note is vital to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius or ideally 1.5 Degrees. This is the letter and spirit of the Paris Agreement, the global accord embraced by 194 countries to meaningfully address climate change in 2015.
As the gut punch reality of climate change impacts millions of people in Washington, anxiety about the future may seep into our daily lives. Our iconic salmon and orca populations are struggling, and extreme weather events and wildfires are increasingly common.
In Washington, though, our response to climate despair is action.
Our entrepreneurial history of building transformational solutions — aviation, mobile, software, cloud computing, coffee, global retail and philanthropy — provides a thrilling road map for the next generation of climate innovation.
We can be optimistic because building a modern economy based on a core principle of sustainability is the most accelerated economic opportunity in history.
Each major category of emissions is a transformational opportunity for research and development, innovation, global best practices and good-paying jobs in the clean energy economy. Specifically, for example, decarbonization of buildings, maritime, aviation, trucking, energy storage, renewable energy, offshore wind, hydrogen, fusion and regenerative agriculture are each unmatched market opportunities to build a new, strengthened 21st Century economic engine.
In our policy journey to 2050, under the helm of Gov. Jay Inslee and my former legislative colleagues including state Sens. Marko Liias, Mark Mullet, Joe Nguyen, Christine Rolfes, Rebecca Saldaña and state Reps. Joe Fitzgibbon and Jake Fey, Washington passed sweeping legislation that is a model for the world.
This includes: 100% clean energy, clean-fuel standard, carbon pricing, building efficiency standards, methane and super pollutant guidelines, electrification of transportation, environmental justice and more.
The Climate Commitment Act, our state’s cap-and-invest program, which I authored, launched in January and covers 75% of state emissions. It was embraced by a broad coalition of business, labor, environmental and equity organizations, sovereign tribal nations, editorial boards and more.
The legislation is built upon the foundational program in California and Quebec. Washington has the luxury of incorporating 10 years of learnings about their success and failure into our program design. There is a strong likelihood that we will join together with the Quebec and California program in the years to come.
Here’s how the cap-and-invest program works. It places an overall state cap on emissions from the major emitters such as large factories and energy facilities. The market-based policy drives emitters to decarbonize in the most economically efficient and environmentally responsible way. It also provides appropriate flexibility for the unique role that commodity markets such as agriculture, timber, maritime and aviation play in the global market.
The state’s overall cap is carefully reduced between 2023 and 2050. Technically, we currently emit 102 million metric tons per year. By 2050 we need to emit only 5 million metric tons while growing our economy, population, jobs and quality of life.
Factories that today release large amounts of emissions are required to participate in auctions to purchase valuable carbon permits. These auctions encourage them to decarbonize and generate revenue to fund high-value climate investments. Examples include: free transit for youth, electric-vehicle charging stations, home-heating grants, wind and solar facilities, climate equity projects, climate R&D, college and workforce development training, salmon-passage restoration, public transit, forest management, methane capture from dairy farms to produce renewable natural gas, regenerative agriculture and more.
As the program matures, an opportunity for tax reduction surfaces if proceeds from cap and invest generate substantially more revenues than expected. The Legislature should then consider reducing utility bills statewide or take other steps to minimize the financial impact on the public.
Cap and invest and other state policies combined with the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act — which is reducing the cost for companies to decarbonize by up to one-third — are collectively accelerating the market’s transition to a sustainable future.
If we look at the 27-year transition to a low-carbon economy through the gift of new eyes, the economic transition to sustainability is the most accelerated market opportunity in global history.
Washington is showing other states and regions around the world a public policy and private sector model of innovation and partnership that can inspire action globally.
I believe that we have entered a new era of deep decarbonization, reduced consumption, smarter growth, equity and global sustainability. We are building a modern approach to climate action that lifts up our quality of life while walking more gently upon the Earth.
As a husband, father of four, the Senate’s former lead on climate action and now a founder of a climate strategy and investment firm, I urge you to reject the pessimism. Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is neither too hard, too complex nor too expensive. Earth Day reminds us that together we can meet this moment.
As Chief Sealth, leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes in what is now Washington state, is believed to have said, “All things are connected. Whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the children of the Earth.”
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.