Monday, March 14, 2016

Can we meet Washington’s 2020 greenhouse gas requirements?

By Camille St. Onge, Communications and Gail Sandlin, PhD, Air Quality 

Will our green-energy state be able to meet the greenhouse gas (carbon pollution) reductions set by our Legislature? That’s the $64,000 question, and a lot of people are interested in knowing where we stand.

And other questions linger. Why is this important? We’re already a pretty green state, so what more do we need to do? Let’s explore that.

Why limits were set

The effects of climate change, which are caused primarily by greenhouse gases, put our state’s agriculture industry, drinking water supplies, infrastructure, and public health at risk. Because of that, the state Legislature put greenhouse gas limits in place to help slow climate change and protect communities from the damage it could cause. 

The Climate Impacts Group, our state’s official source for climate science, has developed multiple bodies of research illustrating the devastating impacts future generations will face if no action is taken to reduce greenhouse gases.

Not familiar with the Climate Impacts Group? They are an internationally recognized research group that is part of the College of the Environment at the University of Washington.

The group recently released a special report, State of Knowledge: Climate Change in Puget Sound, which provides valuable insights to help governments prepare and respond to climate change. A notable projection from the latest report includes weather extremes like ‘atmospheric rivers.’

An atmospheric river is a high intensity of rain that falls in a 24-hour period. At first blush one may think, “Great. More rain.” However, many communities could experience flooding because of atmospheric rivers, costing the community money and disrupting people’s lives. And, these intense dumps of rain overwhelm stormwater systems washing harmful toxins into Puget Sound causing further environmental and economic damage to the gateway to the Pacific.   

And when we talk precipitation, rain isn’t king. Snowpack rules. Snowpack provides essential water supplies to communities throughout the state. The Climate Impacts Group projects that Washington could see up to a 55 percent decline in snowpack. 

So what? You ask. Decreased snowpack can lead to drought and increased river temperatures. These two issues could have devastating effects on our way of life in the Evergreen State. Not only could water supplies be diminished drastically, but it sets up the forests for wildfire conditions. Climate scientists expect the area burned by fire each year to double in the Northwest by the 2040s. This not only puts Washington’s forestland at risk but air quality too.   

And if the 2015 drought was a taste of our future, we know the impacts on our agriculture industry will be harmful. The Washington Department of Agriculture reports that farmers lost more than $335 million because of the drought, and the total is expected to increase as crops finish going to market.

Projections like these drove the Washington State Legislature to put greenhouse gas limits in place to help slow climate change. 

Washington’s Legislature wanted to help slow climate change

With research in front of them, the state Legislature was compelled to protect water supplies, public health, the economy, and much more.

They made the decision to establish three specific limits on greenhouse gases: 

  • By 2020: Reduce overall greenhouse gases in the state to 1990 levels.
  • By 2035: Reduce overall emissions of greenhouse gases in the state to 25 percent below 1990 levels.
  • By 2050: Reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions to 50 percent below 1990 levels.  


Projecting Washington’s greenhouse gases is done using international scientific methods established through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is the United Nations' intergovernmental body of climate scientists. The projections come from aggregating estimates for various sectors that generate greenhouse gases:

  • Electricity: Greenhouse gas emissions from electricity consumed in Washington.
  • Residential, commercial and industrial: Energy used in heating, cooling and manufacturing.
  • Transportation: Emissions from vehicles that use gasoline and diesel, marine vessels, jets, and rail.
  • Fossil fuel industry: Emissions of gases or vapors from pressurized equipment due to leaks and other unintended or irregular releases of gases, mostly from industrial activities.
  • Industrial processes: Processes that produce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Waste management: Wastewater and solid waste.
  • Agriculture: Soils, fermentation, and manure management.

Emissions are tracked through the state’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory. The sectors that contribute most to Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions are:  
  1. Transportation: 46 percent
  2. Residential, commercial and industrial energy: 22 percent
  3. Electricity: 17 percent 

Emissions reductions in these sectors are the key to the state meeting its greenhouse gas limits. In just four years, the first of the three greenhouse gas limits will be upon us.

In 2020, will Washington State greenhouse gas emissions be at 1990 levels?

Using the best available information, Washington is projected to exceed its 2020 greenhouse gas limits by about 4 percent. That’s the equivalent of about 842,000 cars on the road for one year.  You might think this isn’t so bad. However, the 2020 goal is the easy one — future goals will be much more demanding.

The projections take into account existing policies and actions throughout the state, which have done much to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions. 

BAU means business as usual, no additional laws or policies impacting businesses.

Successes and actions needed 

It’s not all doom and gloom though.

Many local governments are working to reduce greenhouse gases and technology is advancing, giving companies more options than in the past and Washington is making progress.

Legislation and agency rules have been put in place to support efforts to reduce greenhouse gases:
  • Washington Clean Car Program reduces GHG from transportation.
  • Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program is the mechanism to track our pollution.
  • State Agency Climate Leadership Act requires state agencies to develop strategies to reduce their emissions.
  • I-937 requires large utilities to obtain 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind. Washington accounts for 1/5 of US renewable power.
  • We are on a pathway to close the state’s only coal-fired power plant by 2025.
  • Our Clean Energy fund provided $80 million to invest in technologies that save energy, cut costs, reduce pollution, and create jobs. We’ve been able to leverage this amount for an additional $200 million in matching funds.
  • Washington has one of the most aggressive building codes in the nation and we are on track to get all new buildings energy neutral by 2030.

Yet to meet the limits Washington has set for itself, both opportunities and challenges remain. We are a green state, but more strategies are needed to reduce our greenhouse gases.

To learn more about Washington’s greenhouse gases, visit Ecology’s website

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