Turning the corner

Greenhouse gas emissions are up, but help is on the way

The bad news first: New data shows greenhouse gas emissions in Washington rose 1.3% from 2017 to 2018, reaching 99.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

On the one hand, 1.3% is a small increase. On the other hand, in recent years, Washington has adopted a number of new policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If emissions are going up, are those policies really working?

Yes, our carbon reduction policies are, in fact, working. But they are phasing in slowly, in many cases, and a number were enacted into law after 2018, the most recent year for which we have data.

So what’s taking so long? Think about it this way: Greenhouse gas emissions represent long-term investments in everything from the car you drive, to how you heat your home, to the types of businesses that provide jobs in your community. Even if your new car gets better gas mileage than your old one, even if your furnace is more efficient or your house better insulated, even if the company you work for invests in low-carbon technologies, it takes time for those same changes to be adopted by everyone in the state. Years, for something like a car. Decades, for things like the power plants that generate the electricity we all use.

All of which is to say that it takes time for the effects of policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions show up in the data.

So, when you look at the 2018 greenhouse gas emissions data, you can see emissions tied to our personal cars and trucks — the largest single category of carbon pollution — absolutely flat over the past decade. It’s impressive progress when you consider how many more people live in Washington than did a decade ago (the state’s population grew by more than 750,000 people between 2009 and 2018).

In fact, gasoline-powered transportation actually produces lower emissions than it did back in 2009 — 22.3 million metric tons in 2018 versus 22.6 million in 2009. Improvements in fuel mileage aren't the only thing driving that trend — it’s also more and better mass transit systems, more people telecommuting, and people living closer to their workplaces.

Likewise, greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation fell 2.5% from 2017 to 2018, in part due to utilities investing in renewable power like wind and solar. The Energy Independence Act of 2006 requires utilities to generate 15% of their power from renewables by 2020.

When will emissions fall?
Graph showing greenhouse gas emissions in Washington from 1990-2018, and the future emissions limits.

OK, so there are signs of progress. When are we going to see the overall emissions numbers actually start to drop?

The easy answer is that when we get final data for 2020, emissions will drop like a rock. Unfortunately, mostly for the wrong reasons: That expected drop in emissions is largely a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced many of us to work from home and exacted a very difficult toll on many businesses. National studies indicate that the pandemic is expected to reduce 2020 emissions by nearly 10%. Here in Washington, an analysis of vehicle emissions by Ecology scientists found that traffic pollution dropped by more than 45% during the spring of 2020, and emissions were still slightly down in the fall. 

Those reductions may be enough to get Washington to the greenhouse gas emissions limit set by the Legislature, which calls for emissions in 2020 to fall back to where they were 30 years ago, in 1990.

While hitting the target sounds nice, the fact is that a pandemic is a terrible, horrible, no good way to cut emissions. The cost is incredibly high, both economically and in terms of the lives and the health of families and friends. Nor are the reductions tied to the pandemic likely to be long-lasting — as the vaccine rolls out, people are expected to go back to work and school, and businesses will ramp up, meaning emissions will once again rise.

Even amidst the chaos of 2020, though, there are real signs of sustainable emissions reductions happening in the state. At the beginning of the year, a coal power plant in Montana (which sends part of its electricity to Washington utilities) shut down two of its four generating units. At the end of 2020, Washington's only coal power plant shuttered one of its two generating units.

In the years to come, those trends will accelerate. The Clean Energy Transformation Act of 2019 requires Washington utilities to completely stop using coal power by 2025, and to stop using any kind of power that produces greenhouse gases by 2045. A phase-out of hydrofluorocarbons — highly potent greenhouse gases used in refrigeration, HVAC systems and other applications — will cut carbon pollution by a million tons by 2030. A zero-emission vehicle mandate adopted in 2020 will soon put more electric vehicles on the roads.

Emissions trends show declines by 2030
A pie chart showing the largest sources of emissions in Washington, led by transportation with 44.9%.

Those policies, along with many others, will add up over time.

Research by the Rhodium Group, a national research firm with a lot of experience analyzing energy and climate policies, predicts that overall emissions in Washington will drop by as much as 25% by 2030. That’s under existing policies, assuming we do nothing else to cut emissions.

Now, a 25% reduction may sound impressive, but the emissions limits set by the Legislature in 2020 call for total emissions to fall 45% by 2030 to a total of 50 million metric tons, and to drop 95% by 2050 to a mere 5 million metric tons. That’s because scientists here in Washington and around the world have found that  deeper cuts to emissions need to be made if we’re going to avoid the worst effects of climate change — and those cuts need to be made more quickly.

That’s why Governor Jay Inslee has proposed additional measures to bring carbon pollution to heel, including a clean fuel standard (Oregon, California and British Columbia already have such a standard), a cap and invest program to limit major emissions sources, new efficiency measures for buildings, and investments in things like electric vehicle charging infrastructure and electrifying Washington's ferry fleet.

If those measures are approved, they would almost be enough to help the state hit that 2030 emissions limit. Even then, we still need to find new solutions, new technologies, and new approaches in order to fully decarbonize the state by the middle of this century. A new report from the Washington Department of Commerce, the 2021 State Energy Strategy, takes a deep dive into the strategies we need to consider to continue cutting emissions, while still allowing the economy to grow.

A chart showing historical emissions and future emissions trends.

So there you go. The 2018 emissions numbers are a clear sign that we need to do more, but also a sign that the steps we’ve taken in the past are beginning to work.