Thursday, December 22, 2016

Ecology issues new recommendations for greenhouse gas limits in Washington

Climate change is one of the most significant issues we face today in Washington State. Tackling climate change is a priority for Ecology and we are working hard to protect fish, farms, and waters from the damage rising temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns will cause in our state. That’s why we adopted one of the nation’s most progressive regulations to cap and reduce greenhouse gases, and also why Ecology recently provided a report to the Legislature that recommends lower greenhouse gas limits for our state.

Washington’s climate change forecast

With our temperate climate and typically wet weather, you might think Washington would
fare better than many places in dealing with climate change. The truth, however, is that Washington faces serious impacts to our snowpack and water supplies as temperatures climb. Another threat comes from increases in ocean acidity, which will harm our state’s shellfish industry. And, climate change will lead to more extreme weather such as heavy rainfall that will increase the risk of flooding.

Take a look at the thermometer chart below. If global emissions continue to grow in a business-as-usual fashion, Washington is projected to experience the “green” conditions at the bottom of the chart in the coming decades. By the mid 21st century, though, that “business-as-usual” trend will bring us into the “yellow” zone, which includes serious consequences such as a 56-70 percent decrease in snowpack and large increases in ocean acidity. By the end of the 21st century, we would be into the “red zone.” 

The predicted effects of these significant increases in average temperatures would be severe – large decreases in snowpack and summer precipitation, devastating increases in ocean acidity, increased flooding and jumps in sea level that will damage many Washington communities. Our best tool to prevent these effects is reducing emissions, both in Washington and around the world.

While the 21st century may seem like the distant future, the effects of climate change can be seen today. Washington has already suffered a substantial loss of snowpack mass in glaciers during the 20th century, as shown in the chart below. While the severe drought in 2015 cannot be attributed solely to climate change, scientists agree that it offered a sobering preview of the conditions our state will regularly face as temperatures rise. 

Washington’s leadership limiting greenhouse gases

Many years ago, our Legislature recognized the threat climate change poses to Washington. In order to protect our natural resources and infrastructure for future generations, the Legislature set limits on the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

At that time, Washington was a national leader in establishing greenhouse gas limits. In concert with the latest science, today you’ll find that many states in the U.S. have adopted more stringent limits than Washington did in 2008. Since taking office, Gov. Jay Inslee has introduced a range of strategies to combat climate change. Washington is a founding signatory of the Under 2MOU, an agreement between 165 jurisdictions from 33 countries on six continents to do their part to limit warming below 2° Celsius.

Updated recommended greenhouse gas limits

When Washington’s Legislature adopted our state’s original greenhouse gas limits, it recognized that that climate change science was rapidly evolving, and our legislators had the foresight to require periodic review of our targets.

Today, there is a global consensus that we need to reduce greenhouse gases. In 2015, 197 countries, including the United States, committed at the United Nations climate summit in Paris to do their part to limit increases in global temperatures to 2°C.

When developing updated recommendations for Washington’s greenhouse gas limits, Ecology:

  • Consulted with the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group on current climate science. 
  • Reviewed other state greenhouse gas limits.
  • Considered Washington’s Under 2MOU commitment.
  • Acknowledged the U.S. pledge to reduce greenhouse gases.
  • Evaluated current Washington state policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.

Given the need to stabilize atmospheric carbon (from greenhouse gases) in a way that limits global temperature increases to below 2°C, and preferably below 1.5°C, Ecology is recommending the Legislature adjust the current state limits.

Recommended limits:

  • By 2020, reduce overall emissions of greenhouse gases in the state to 1990 levels (unchanged).
  • By 2035, reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions in the state to 40 percent below 1990 levels (currently, 25 percent below 1990 levels).
  • By 2050, reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions in the state to 80 percent below 1990 levels (currently 50 percent below 1990 levels).

Earlier this month, Ecology provided the Washington Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Limits report to the Washington Legislature. While the Legislature has no obligation to adopt the recommended limits, given the projected impacts on Washington, Ecology believes that the Legislature, local governments and state agencies must work together to reduce greenhouse gases.

By Camille St. Onge, Air Quality Program

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