As scientists issue increasingly dire warnings over climate change, Washington state’s greenhouse-gas emissions continue to trend higher, according to the latest state inventory.
Emissions in 2017, the most recent year for which information is available, were similar to those in 2016 but up about 1.6% when compared with 2015, according to data released Tuesday by the state Department of Ecology.
Rising emissions from transportation and building heating cut away at gains in other sectors of the economy, according to the report. The data shows just how challenging it will be to steer the state toward a greener future as it continues its rapid growth.
The trend in overall emissions points upward even as emissions per resident have declined, said Andy Wineke, a spokesman for the Ecology Department.
“Washington state has a booming economy, a growing population,” Wineke said. “But if we’re going to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, we’re going to have to reduce them across the board. I am definitely seeing reasons for cautious optimism, but the size of the challenge has not shrunk.”
State legislators in 2008 wrote into law a plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
“At this point, we’re not on track to hit the 2020 target,” Wineke said. “The bigger concern is, of course, whether the targets we adopted in 2008 are sufficient to reduce the impacts.”
After 2020, the next marker is 2035, when the state is supposed to have dropped emissions to 25% percent below 1990 levels. Then, by 2050, the state is supposed to have cut emissions in half compared with 1990. Every two years, the Ecology Department is required by law to produce what amounts to a progress report.
In 2017, the state produced nearly 97.5 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent. In 2015, that figure was 95.9 million, according to the Ecology data, which calculated information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Commerce. The numbers lag years behind because the data takes time to gather and is difficult to compute.
Climate experts last year delivered dire warnings about the effects of warming on the world, and called for society-altering shifts in human behavior and the world’s economy. A United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called for “rapid and far-reaching” changes in energy systems, land use, city and industrial design, transportation and building use.
A report produced by the U.S. Global Change Research Program detailed expected climate effects across the country. The Pacific Northwest can expect both more drought and more extreme rain events. If emissions are left unchecked, higher temperatures will likely cause salmon to lose habitat, disrupt Northwest crops such as cherries, and contribute to more wildfires.
Lawmakers took several steps during the most recent legislative session to reduce Washington’s greenhouse-gas emissions in years to come.
Gov. Jay Inslee this year signed a package of bills that would rid Washington’s electric grid of fossil-fuel-generated power by 2045. Electricity generation accounted for nearly 17% of Washington’s emissions in 2017, according to the Ecology data.
Several coal-fueled power plants that serve Washington residents are going offline soon. Two of the four units at the Colstrip coal-fired power plant in Montana are slated to shut down in the coming months. A burner at TransAlta’s Centralia power plant will stop firing coal next year.
Lawmakers also created new conservation standards for energy use in large buildings and phased out hydrofluorocarbons used in refrigeration, moves Wineke said would eventually slice about a million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent from the statewide emissions total.
“We took a giant leap forward as a state and passed the strongest 100% clean energy bill in the nation and the strongest package of decarbonization bills in a single year,” said State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. “We can do that same level of work in transportation and other sectors.”
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, noted that the state is producing less carbon now than in 2000, when emissions peaked at 108.6 million metric tons. Ericksen said Washington had a “minuscule” impact on greenhouse gases compared to the rest of the world. He worries that a swift transition to clean energy could cause reliability issues in the electricity grid.
“In the bigger picture of things, what’s more important to the people of Washington state: Some kind of virtue signaling that makes no difference, or the power to their homes to operate their computers?” Ericksen said.
Low-carbon advocates described last session’s legislative action as merely a beginning.
“It’s really only going to affect 10-15% of our emissions,” said Doug Ray, chair of the Carbon Washington board of directors, which put a carbon-tax initiative on the ballot in 2016 that voters rejected. “The area they missed was the transportation sector. We got nothing done. We’re well set up for this: Our electricity is already low carbon.”
Carlyle said Democrats, who control both chambers of the state Legislature, are considering policies on clean fuel standards, more stringent carbon goals, and revamping how transportation is funded to boost transit.
“We have to move forward at an accelerated rate,” Carlyle said, on reducing greenhouse gases. “That’s the moral and policy imperative of our time.”