An Earth Day accounting of planet-saving efforts

Washington has enacted greenhouse gas-reducing measures and has signed the Western Climate Initiative. But about the most you can say for those efforts so far is that they don't do any harm — they're symbolic first steps.

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Washington has enacted greenhouse gas-reducing measures and has signed the Western Climate Initiative. But about the most you can say for those efforts so far is that they don't do any harm — they're symbolic first steps.

Earth Day is tomorrow, April 22. It brings many feel-good projects that don't really do much to solve the planet's serious environmental problems. (I'm not personally hostile to such projects; before anyone knew that snowy weather would keep the crowds away, I signed up to help with a workshop and ride for novice cyclists.) It's an appropriate time to ask if Washington's new anti-climate-change law, signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire on March 13, takes us an important step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions in this corner of the United States — or merely makes us feel better about ourselves. It probably does a bit of both.

The new law translates goals into commitments and planning directives but not yet into regulations or cash. State agencies must figure out how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020; 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2035; 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The state Department of Transportation, with helps from the Department of Ecology, must come up with tools for reducing miles driven in the state 18 percent below 1990 levels by 2020; 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2035; 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. (Transportation is Washington's biggest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, so fewer emissions pretty well require less driving.) State agencies must design a "regional multisector, market-based system" to limit and reduce emissions, in concert with the Western Climate Initiative. The Department of Ecology must report on which entities in Washington emit how much carbon dioxide. Agencies must realign existing programs to create and train people to fill 25,000 new "green economy" jobs by 2020.

Gregoire had already established the legislation's major emission-reduction and job-creation goals in an executive order issued last year.

She had also signed onto a Western Climate Initiative under which the governors and premiers of Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, British Columbia, and Manitoba agree to reduce the West's greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent below the 2005 level by 2020.

Last year's executive order had created a Washington Climate Advisory Team, representing a broad list of interests, which has been meeting since last year. The legislation embodies a number of its 47 proposals.

Achieving them will hardly be a slam dunk. Believing that the state can create jobs in targeted industries or communities requires a certain leap of faith. There is little reason to think state government will do better at creating jobs in green industry than it did, say, at replacing jobs lost in timber towns during the 1980s and '90s. As for training and re-training workers to take new high-wage jobs, one woman who has been involved in job training scoffs at the lack of financial commitment.

Achieving the ambitious reduction goals depends on our ability and willingness to solve the old and so-far intractable problems of land use regulation (channeling growth into high-density cities) and transportation (creating a mass transit system that takes people where they want to go when they want to go there). If people live close to their jobs and stores and recreation, they don't have to travel much. If they do have to travel, public transportation minimizes their impact on climate. (What about population growth? All the state's goals are ambitious, if you assume a stable population. If you assume that the population will double by 2050, they look downright fanciful. One can argue that population is a subject no one seriously considers anymore – that is, no one considers it except the leaders of certain religious groups, who are all for it. Policy makers don't ignore the subject; they just take it as a given, rather than a variable.)

None of this is news. Is this the time we actually make it all work? We have a relatively auspicious environment in which to try; the rise in oil prices may push more people toward climate-friendly driving behavior than any feasible legislation is likely to do.

Still, reporting emissions is a much surer bet than actually reducing them. Reporting is probably the most achievable of the legislation's main objectives. Logically, it makes sense to know what you're dealing with before you deal with it. But does it actually move us any closer to solving the problems?

It may. Bullitt Foundation president Denis Hays says that reporting can produce concrete results: Experience shows that if you identify the biggest emitters, they tend to emit less.

In that vein, New York Times science writer John Tierney wrote last month that he'd "like to see a new green fad for electronic jewelry with real-time displays of carbon footprints. These could be mood rings, bracelets, lapel pins or anything else that could change color depending on how much electricity you use, how much gasoline your car burns, how much you travel." Tierney suggested that the

displays might change color from red to yellow to green as a carbon footprint diminishes. (There might even be a little glowing footprint on it.) The green might be a dim shade for those who have bought carbon credits to offset their energy use, but a much brighter shade for those who've reduced emissions to below-average without having to buy the credits.

At the time Gregoire signed Washington's new law, climate change was very much in the news: China reported that its carbon dioxide emissions had increased faster than anyone had predicted, and it would pass the U.S. this year as the globe's No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gas (that has evidently happened); the European Union talked about imposing trade sanctions on both the U.S. and China, so that European companies forced to limit CO2 emissions wouldn't have to compete unfairly against companies that were free to spew as much CO2 as they liked; and Clive Crook wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that the Kyoto Protocol was a sham and a failure – not least because neither China nor the U.S. had signed on, and only two of the self-righteous European nations have any prayer of reaching their emission targets. Crook suggested that President Bush might be kind of a doofus, but he was right to reject Kyoto.

Last Wednesday, April 16, the reluctant Mr. Bush said we should halt increases of greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 – not exactly a revolutionary proposal, but a first for him. Bush has finally realized that if you don't play, you can't win, The Wall Street Journal reported last week (albeit not in so many words); the administration has gotten into the game so that it can help persuade China and India to do more, and help persuade Congress to do less.

Bush still rejects Kyoto, of course. Hays of the Bullitt Foundation readily concedes that Kyoto has probably failed – but it's a first step, and it's a whole lot better than nothing. We can make the second step better. He views the Washington law much the same way: It's imperfect, but doing something beats the alternative. We're at least moving in the right direction.

What would a step in the wrong direction look like? Republican presidential candidate John McCain has suggested suspending the federal gas tax for the peak summer driving months. The savings would be trivial — federal tax makes up only about 5 percent of the average gas price — but it's the thought that counts. Suspending the tax would send a message that your government wants driving to remain as cheap and inviting as possible. Who doesn't? Before one condemns McCain for taking the discussion in exactly the wrong direction, one might recall that he, like his Democratic rivals, favors a cap on emissions, and that in 2000, when then-Vice President Al Gore was trying to get elected president, rather than trying to save the world, Gore released gas from the nation's strategic petroleum reserve to hold prices down. Virtually everyone panders to the American notion that cheap gas is a birthright. Virtually no one who wants to get elected argues for more congestion, fewer parking places, more expensive gas. But that's where the new state legislation ultimately leads. Is anyone willing to follow?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.