Photo: Troye Owens/Flickr
The magnitude of the climate challenge is daunting; a constellation of causes and impacts, promising no simple fix.
But a new proposal in Washington state has identified a powerful place to start.
I-1631, on the ballot this November, is grounded in the reality that to truly address climate change today, it’s simply no longer enough to drive down carbon emissions—communities must now also be readied for climate impacts, including those already at hand, and all those still to come.
As a result, this community-oriented, solutions-driven carbon pricing proposal is generating enthusiastic support from a broad and growing coalition across the state.
No single policy can solve all climate challenges, but I-1631 presents a critically important start. And, because it was specifically designed to prioritize those most vulnerable to climate change and the inevitable transitions to come—through intersections with jobs, health, geography, and historical social and economic inequities—the policy stands to be a powerful change for good, and that is the very best metric we’ve got.
Here, a summary of what it’s all about.
I-1631 is organized around a commonsense framework: charge a fee for carbon pollution to encourage the shift toward a cleaner economy, then accelerate that transition by investing the revenues in clean energy and climate resilience.
The Clean Air, Clean Energy Initiative states:
Investments in clean air, clean energy, clean water, healthy forests, and healthy communities will facilitate the transition away from fossil fuels, reduce pollution, and create an environment that protects our children, families, and neighbors from the adverse impacts of pollution.
Funding these investments through a fee on large emitters of pollution based on the amount of pollution they contribute is fair and makes sense.
I-1631 emerged as the result of a years-long collaboration between diverse stakeholders—including labor, tribal, faith, health, environmental justice, and conservation groups—leading to a proposal that’s deeply considerate of the many and varied needs of the peoples and communities caught in the climate crossfire. The Union of Concerned Scientists is proud to have been a part of this alliance and to now support I-1631.
How it works
There are two main components to I-1631—the investments and the fee. Let’s take them in turn.
Investing in a cleaner, healthier, and more climate-resilient world.
I-1631 prioritizes climate solutions by investing in the communities, workforces, and technologies that the state will need to thrive moving forward. This means identifying and overcoming the vulnerabilities these groups face, and re-positioning the state’s economic, health, and environmental priorities to achieve a resilient and robust future.
The policy proactively approaches this by assigning collected fees to one of three investment areas, guided by a public oversight board and content-specific panels:
- Clean Air and Clean Energy (70 percent): Projects that can deliver tens of millions of tons of emissions reductions over time, including through renewables, energy efficiency, and transportation support. Within four years, would also create a $50 million fund to support workers affected by the transition away from fossil fuels, to be replenished as needed thereafter.
- Clean Water and Healthy Forests (25 percent): Projects that can increase the resiliency of the state’s waters and forests to climate change, like reducing flood and wildfire risks and boosting forest health.
- Healthy Communities (5 percent): Projects that can prepare communities for the challenges caused by climate change—including by developing their capacity to directly participate in the process—and to ensure that none are disproportionately affected.
Of these investments, the initiative further specifies a need to target well over a third of all funds to projects that benefit areas facing particularly high environmental burdens and population vulnerabilities, as well as projects supported by Indian tribes. This works to ensure that those who are most vulnerable are not left behind, but instead positioned to thrive in a changing world.
Another vital part of the proposal is that at least 15 percent of Clean Air and Clean Energy funds must be dedicated to alleviating increases in energy costs for low-income customers that result from pollution reduction initiatives. Without such a stipulation, the policy could lead lower-income households to feel its effects more. But instead, I-1631 directs funds to eliminate such cost increases. This could be through energy-saving investments, such as weatherizing a home, or by directly limiting costs, such as through bill assistance programs.
Qualifying light and power businesses and gas distribution businesses can, instead of paying a fee, claim an equivalent amount of credits and then directly invest in projects according to an approved clean energy investment plan.
Charging a fee for carbon pollution.
To pay for these investments, I-1631 would charge large emitters for the carbon emissions they release. In turn, the policy would send a signal to the market to spur innovation and investments in lower-carbon, less polluting alternatives.
The proposed fee begins at $15 per metric ton of carbon content in 2020 and proceeds to increase by $2 per metric ton each year thereafter, plus any necessary adjustments for inflation. This is estimated to generate hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
Notably, the price does not go up indefinitely. Instead, as a reflection of the intention of the price—to achieve a climate-relevant reduction in carbon emissions—once the state’s 2035 greenhouse gas reduction goal of 25 percent below 1990 levels is met, and the state’s emissions are on a trajectory that indicates compliance with the state’s 2050 goal of 50 percent below 1990 levels, the fee is to be fixed.
And just who is it that pays? Generally, the largest emitters in the state—fossil-fuel fired power plants, oil companies, and large industrial facilities.
However, the proposal also recognizes that Washington has some industries in direct competition with others in places without a comparable carbon fee, and thus a price on carbon could make them less competitive. As a result, the policy specifically provides select exemptions to these entities, including agriculture, pulp and paper mills, and others. The proposal also excludes coal-fired power plants that have committed to shutting down by 2025, in recognition of existing legal settlements and constraints.
Ultimately, the policy seeks to spur the state’s economy towards a forward-looking, carbon-considerate model, but to do it in such a way that workers and vulnerable communities do not end up bearing a disproportionate share of the costs.
Where it stands
Following months of organizing and signature gathering, on top of years of stakeholder engagement and collaboration, I-1631 will officially be put to vote in Washington this November.
This is not the first time carbon pricing has come up in the state; I-1631 builds from previous measures attempted in the legislature and on the ballot.
And this policy has the advantage of being designed from the ground up. It unites diverse stakeholders in common cause, and proactively addresses the fact that vulnerable communities are at risk of being hit first and worst.
What’s more, I-1631’s method of tackling the problem from both sides—charging a fee for pollution and investing funds in that which it aims to change—is an effective policy design, and a popular one at that. It wouldn’t be the first carbon pricing policy in the US, with cap-and-trade programs running in California and the Northeast, though it would be the first to employ an explicit price.
In the face of all this positive momentum, fossil fuel interests have been mounting an aggressive opposition campaign. But their desperate attempts at finding an objection that will stick—calling out threats to jobs and undue burdens on the poor—are undercut by the policy’s careful exemptions, sustained support for worker transitions, and significant direct attention paid to those who need it most.
The fact is, climate change is here, now, and communities are suffering the costs. I-1631 points a way forward, for all.
With this proposal, Washington is demonstrating that climate and community leadership can still be found if you let the people speak—heartening at a time when evidence of such leadership from the nation’s capital is itself sorely missed.