A white horse grazes in a pasture blanketed by wildfire smoke last October in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald file photo)

A white horse grazes in a pasture blanketed by wildfire smoke last October in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Lawmakers face budget for climate our kids will see

Legislators now have a source of revenue for solutions to climate change. How it will be spent matters.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Even as the world appears to be muddling along with pledges and accords to address climate change — even as the impacts from global warming keep step with incremental increases in temperature — there is hope in a broad range of technologies, programs and reforms that can cut emissions and stem the rise in warming at no greater than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Keeping close to that mark can head off an ever-steeper slide toward extremes in drought, floods, heat, storms, wildfires, sea rise, losses of habitat and species, economic strife and population migration. Do nothing — or next to nothing — and a child born in 2020 could see a global rise in temperatures of up to 4 degrees Celsius by 2090 when they are 70 years old.

For those solutions to be effective, however, their implementation — worldwide — has to be much swifter and broader than the current pace. The goal of 1.5C, set by the Paris accords in 2015, still is achievable, but greenhouse gas emissions — chief among them carbon dioxide and methane — must be reduced 50 percent by 2030; less than seven years away.

The roll-out of climate solutions has been slowed by the costs of investing in the transition, adoption and implementation of the full range of efforts; from the personal level, such as buying an electric vehicle or a home-heating switch from a gas furnace to an electric heat pump; to larger-scale efforts focused on sequestering carbon dioxide, capturing it so it can’t contribute to a warming atmosphere.

What a price on carbon can buy: A long-sought source of funding — putting a price on the greenhouse gases that industries, utilities and, in turn, individuals emit — already is being implemented in numerous countries, and in the United States in California, and now in Washington state and two others.

Washington state marked its first ever auction of carbon credits in February, part of the Climate Commitment Act that the Legislature passed in 2021. The act requires industries emitting greenhouse gases to purchase allowances, also called “credits” for the pollution they release, capping their emissions at a set limit. This encourages those emitting greenhouse gases to look for ways to reduce emissions in the future as the cap is lowered in coming years, while at the same time generating significant new revenue that the state can invest in vital climate and pollution-reduction solutions.

That first auction — with more to follow quarterly — sold more than 6.1 million credits at $48.50 for each metric ton of carbon emissions, bringing in some $300 million.

Now, spending that first $300 million and an estimated $2 billion for the next two-year state budget is a decision that state lawmakers are weighing in the final days of this year’s session. Both House and Senate proposed budgets have outlined specific spending proposals for programs and investments, as part of their larger operating, transportation and capital budgets.

From the perspective of environmental groups, including those that have worked with lawmakers on specific proposals and recommendations, the budgets from each chamber have their own strengths that can make the most of the carbon credit revenue.

“We’re really hopeful that by the final budget, when the two chambers reconcile, we’ll get the best of both worlds,” said Leah Missik, a senior policy manager for Climate Solutions.

The House plan: The spending outlined in the House budget, Missik said, is particularly strong in its recommendations regarding transportation — which accounts for about 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the state — and in home and business heating.

It outlines about $275 million toward transition to electric and other zero-emission medium-duty and heavy-duty vehicles, such as semi-trucks, transit and school buses and delivery vans, not only a source of carbon emission, but also of particulates from diesel exhaust responsible for impacts on health.

It also allocates $115 million to help low- and moderate-income families transition homes to electric heat pumps from gas heat; again lowering carbon emissions but also improving health because of that fuel’s effects on childhood asthma, Missik said. That money would be further leveraged by federal grants now available for heat pumps.

The Senate plan: The Senate budget gets points for its focus on natural resources, equity and environmental justice, said David Mendoza, policy analyst and director of public advocacy and engagement for the Nature Conservancy’s state chapter.

The Senate budget would allocate $83 million to the state Department of Natural Resources, in part, to move mature forests on state forest lands into permanent protection and the work of carbon sequestration, by purchasing land to develop as working forests as well as similar work for aquaculture and agricultural lands, Mendoza said.

A study by the Nature Conservancy and the University of Washington estimates that those natural sequestration efforts could capture 8 million to 9 million metric tons of carbon by 2050, and 3 million as soon as 2030, he said.

The Senate budget also allocates some $71 million toward air quality work, especially in overburdened communities.

“One of biggest critiques of California’s cap-and-invest program is that while they are seeing reductions in greenhouse gases, what they’re not seeing is improvement in how health-harming emissions have affected communities,” Mendoza said.

To start, money would be spent on monitoring programs throughout the state by the state departments of Health and Ecology, essentially replicating and expanding on the work of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency in that region.

As well, the Senate allocates funding that would allow communities to direct some spending.

The hope now is to bring together the most cost-effective recommendation from both budgets, without losing the strengths of either.

“If you pair these amounts that we’re asking for — on transportation and building side in the House and air-quality monitoring and participatory budgeting and natural resources in the Senate — when you pair those we can still come underneath what we expect to come from the auctions,” Missik said.

There will be opportunities each year to make adjustments, especially as each climate auction provides a better sense of the revenue that can be expected, Mendoza said. As initial programs are funded and see success, priorities can be adjusted.

“We can make these investments and move onto the next thing,” Mendoza said. “Because there’s always going to be a next thing that needs some more money.”

But with this first budget, Missik said, it’s important that lawmakers invest the initial proceeds from the auction that make strong investments and demonstrate the program’s possibilities.

“We hope the Legislature gets it right, and is really deliberate with these dollars,” she said.

An example and a promise: The decisions made on any budget weighed by lawmakers are of importance to state residents, but more so now for how Washington will invest its revenue from the Climate Commitment Act’s carbon credit auctions.

What investments are made now by California, Washington, Oregon and New York, can provide examples to other states. And a promise to today’s children who will see the turn of the next century and what we’ve left them.

Clarification: The explanation of the Climate Commitment Act’s cap on emissions has been restated from an earlier version of this editorial to better reflect the requirement that industries must adhere to a set limit on emissions and purchase allowances for the greenhouse gases released.

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