Greenhouse gas report shows a cloudy future — with important silver linings

By Andrew Wineke, Washington Department of Ecology

A recent report from the Washington Department of Ecology showed that greenhouse gas emissions in our state rose 6.1 percent between 2012 and 2015.

Looking at the 6.1 percent increase without delving deeper sounds like bad news. And, yes, it shows that our state has plenty of work to do if we’re going to reach the emissions targets set by the Legislature. But there’s more to it — a closer look at the numbers reveals some encouraging signs of progress.

The sun sets over a part of Washington. (Photo courtesy of Dept. of Ecology)

What the increase in emissions doesn’t show is that our state experienced significant population growth and economic growth over the same three-year period. In fact, while carbon emissions have grown slightly, our economy has grown faster. This means that the total carbon pollution generated per dollar of economic activity in our state has actually fallen.

If you look back a little farther, the 97.4 million metric tons of greenhouse gases emitted in 2015 is down significantly from the peak of 108.6 million metric tons produced in 2000. Overall, Washington has some of the lowest emissions per resident in the country — a tenth of what residents of the highest-polluting states generate.

Dept. of Ecology graphic.

So, our economy is getting cleaner and more efficient, and that’s a good sign. But it’s not the only sign of progress in the new report.

Take transportation. Our state’s population grew by 240,000 people between 2012 and 2015. More people and more business activity meant more than 350,000 new vehicles registered between 2012 and 2015.

Despite this, greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline-powered cars and trucks — the largest single category of carbon pollution in our state — stayed nearly flat from 2012 to 2015. Plus, they were down significantly from the high water mark in 2003, when our state had almost a million fewer people.

What’s going on? Increased use of mass transit (up sharply since 2010 in King County) and improved fuel economy standards are a big part of it. There may be more of us driving more cars, but we’re getting more efficient. And, although it doesn’t show up in the stats, Washington has the second-highest rate of electric vehicle sales in the country, which means more and more of us are getting around without producing any emissions at all.

The super-polluting greenhouse gas chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are one category in the report where emissions have been climbing steadily, doubling in the last 15 years and projected to continue to grow. That’s why Gov. Jay Inslee proposed legislation to phase down the use HFCs.

One more key point: Washington suffered a crippling drought during 2015. Our state heavily depends on hydropower, so less water to spin the turbines meant we needed to find other sources of electricity. In 2016, the drought broke, reservoirs filled, and emissions from electricity generation dropped again as hydroelectric production resumed.

Dept. of Ecology graphic.

So what does this all mean if we want to achieve our greenhouse gas emissions targets?

One effort already underway but not noted in the report is the transition away from coal-fired electricity. The TransAlta Centralia power plant — a major source of greenhouse gas emissions — is required to stop burning coal at one of its two generating units in 2020 and the other by 2025. The Colstrip coal power plant in Montana, which sends part of its power to Washington utilities, is due to shut down two of its four generating units by 2022. And our state’s renewable energy standard jumps up again in 2020, which means Washington’s utilities are continuing to invest in wind, solar and other sources of renewable power.

All of those changes will result in big emissions reductions, but it’s still not enough. To get us on track for our 2035 target, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a clean energy and climate package in December 2018 that transitions the state to 100 percent clean energy, supports zero-emission vehicles, improves building efficiency, lowers the carbon content in fuels, and phases down potent greenhouse gases called hydrofluorocarbons.

“Driving down emissions and reducing carbon means harnessing that innovation and super-charging our efforts to do it more, do it bigger and do it faster,” Inslee said during his Dec. 2018 budget rollout. “We can do this. We must do this. And we’ll all benefit from the economic growth and increased security that comes with it.”

Under Inslee’s leadership, Washington State agencies are leading the way. In 2018, Inslee issued an executive order to reduce emissions from state operations. That directive will mean more projects like the Helen Sommers building in Olympia, home to the Washington State Patrol’s headquarters and several other state agencies, which earned the highest certification possible for sustainability. The Sommers building produces 71.4 percent less carbon dioxide than an average office building. Another example is Inslee’s requirement that 50 percent of all new state passenger vehicles be electric by 2020.

We all want to grow our economy and we all know we need to reduce carbon pollution. This report shows that those goals aren’t mutually exclusive.

Read the report: Washington State Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory: 1990–2015

Originally published at on February 1, 2019.

Two of the governor’s climate policy advisors, Lauren McCloy and Chris Davis, explain what the recent data tells us about Washington’s efforts to combat climate change:

Q1: What’s the good news?

Chris: The good news is the economy grew and emissions didn’t grow along with it at the same rate. This tells us we’re starting to unlink the relationship between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions and we’re becoming more efficient. We’re doing more economically while consuming less energy.

Q2: What’s the bad news?

Lauren: We have more work to do to find ways of reducing the emissions intensity of our economic growth and energy sources.

Chris: That’s right. Emissions are still growing because efficiency is not enough. And we’re running out of time to take these next steps. The Legislature passed greenhouse gas emissions limits 10 years ago in 2008. Without bold action this year on the scale of what the governor has proposed, we’re unlikely to make the 2020 targets and we’re way off track for 2035 targets.

Q3: What is the governor doing to help?

Chris: In December, the governor put forth a plan that addresses all the major sources of emissions. There are a lot of pieces here. The governor is working with utilities to get to 100 percent clean electricity. We’re working with natural gas distributors and sellers to make our buildings more efficient and we’re expanding access to alternative fuels to reduce emissions in transportation. We’re putting our state on a pathway to 100 percent clean electricity. We’re driving investments in energy efficiency to make our buildings more efficient, and we’re expanding access to alternative fuels. We’re also promoting the availability of electric vehicles and charging infrastructure. Overall, the legislative package is designed to put us on track to meet the state’s 2035 reductions goals. At the same time, we know those goals are out-of-date, and not consistent with the latest science. So, we’re supporting legislation that goes along with the targets from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Lauren: The governor is also making sure we’re walking the talk and leading by doing. We’re making large strides in reducing emissions from state operations — which means we’re building better buildings and buying more electric vehicles. We’re also working to power state facilities with clean energy. Our state agencies are on track to meet their 2020 emissions reductions goals, and most of these activities will actually save on costs like fuel and maintenance in the long-term. What this means is that these investments are a win-win for everyone.

Q4: What change can readers make on their own to help lower greenhouse gas emissions?

Lauren: Buy a new or used electric vehicle (EV), if you can. Not everyone can buy one but there are a number of EV’s on the market at surprisingly low prices. You can also make use of public transportation options when you can and when they’re available. There are low-income weatherization services you could use to make your home more energy efficient, too. Overall, we can be smarter consumers.

Chris: You can go home and call your electricity utility provider and say, ‘As of right now, I only want to have renewable power.’ People don’t often choose to do that but you can do it — and it helps. Because then, the provider has to go out and find clean power and replace the other power they were selling you. The state’s been doing that at large. You can also call your representatives and hold them accountable. Or encourage your workplace to buy clean. There are utility programs out there you can join that offer customers clean electricity and renewable gas, and you could ask your employer to do the same.

Be conscientious about the efficiency of the products you buy. You know, buy an efficient water heater. Buy an efficient furnace. When you have to replace those things, look for more efficient products. All that stuff adds up. It doesn’t feel very big when you do it yourself but you times a million people doing it is a power plant that we don’t have to build. And, tell your friends. Be a smart consumer as opposed to telling people to do less or buy less. Be smart — you can buy good things or you can buy bad things. It makes a difference. You can also ask your employer what they’re doing to support transit and electric transportation options for their employees.

Q5: What is important to know about the transition to a clean energy future?

Lauren: Measures like these will save households money over the long-term on overall energy and transportation costs. So, we look at energy holistically. It’s a system. And I think that system is currently in a state of change so we’re working on measures that will make that overall system more efficient, cleaner, and cost less over the long-term.

Chris: This report shows us we can make progress on climate and not have to give up economic growth. Innovation and technology will keep improving so that, over the long term, we’ll continue to find that these policies and actions become more and more affordable. When voters passed I-937, which had utilities to go out and buy lots of renewable power, they said, ‘It’s going to cost us way more money.’ But here we are 13 years later and businesses come here because we still have the cheapest electricity in the country.