In the absence of federal action on climate change, more states are setting ambitious targets to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Washington became the latest on Tuesday when Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law requiring that 100 percent of the state’s electricity come from clean energy sources by 2045.
Washington is now the fifth state or territory—following Hawaii, California, New Mexico and Puerto Rico—to commit to 100 percent clean electricity, and at least six other states are considering similar legislation.
“This means we can have a fighting chance at saving the things we cherish most — our land, our air, our water and our children’s health,” Inslee said in a prepared statement. “We aren’t done. Our success this year is just a harbinger of successes to come. But we’re ready. We can do this.”
Inslee has an even more ambitious plan for a nationwide conversion to clean energy: Last week, his presidential campaign issued a proposal to get the country to 100 percent zero-emissions electricity by 2035. while also requiring all new vehicles and buildings to be zero emissions. That followed another 2020 candidate, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s announcement of his own climate plan with a goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050. Activists and some congressional Democrats supporting a Green New Deal want an even faster timeline: transform the nation’s electric grid to 100 percent clean energy in just 10 years.
These policies and proposals follow a report last fall by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that net greenhouse gas emissions must be brought to zero by mid-century to limit global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the ambition of the Paris climate agreement. It said a 45 percent reduction from 2010 levels would be needed worldwide by 2030.
Meeting any of those timelines will require an unprecedented overhaul of infrastructure and policies to transform a national electricity system where only about a third of the power is currently generated by carbon-free sources. Renewable energy prices are falling, but many coal and natural gas power plants still have decades before their expected retirement dates.
“The Green New Deal at the national level has certainly elevated the conversation,” said Benjamin Inskeep, an analyst at EQ Research, a clean energy consulting firm. “States are hopping on that momentum to pass these kinds of policies.”
Since January, newly elected governors in Illinois, New Mexico, Michigan, Wisconsin, Maine and Nevada have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of governors who have committed to implementing policies consistent with the U.S. goal of the Paris Agreement. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf last week became the 24th governor to join since President Donald Trump vowed to pull the U.S. out of the accord.
The states and territories in the alliance represent more than half of the U.S. population and economy, and their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could keep momentum going in the absence of strong action at the national level. Their goal is to achieve the Paris agreement short-term pledge made by the Obama administration: cutting at least 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The Trump administration has disavowed this promise.
Clear Timeline for Ending Fossil Fuels
The Washington state law signed this week sets a clear timeline for the phaseout of fossil fuels. It includes job-training programs for workers currently employed by the fossil fuel industry and has several measures to address equity for low-income communities.
The law requires the state to stop using coal power by 2025. It boosts weatherization programs for low-income individuals; seeks to ensure the benefits of the clean energy transition, things like electric car charging stations, are distributed equally across all communities; and offers tax breaks to clean energy developers who hire union workers and companies owned by women, minorities and veterans.
“We feel like this sets a new high bar of what is possible in a state bill,” Kass Rohrbach, deputy director, of the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign, said.
Keeping climate change in check will require changes to other sectors of the economy, well beyond power generation. This is especially true in Washington state, where about 60 percent of the state’s electricity already comes from hydropower, and transportation makes up 43 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.
A November ballot initiative in Washington state sought an economy-wide price on carbon, but after strong opposition from the oil and gas industry, it was defeated.
While the new law doesn’t place a fee on emissions, two additional laws signed by Inslee are designed to reduce emissions from buildings and transportation.
Another law will restrict the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), chemicals used in air conditioning and refrigeration, that are between 1,000 and 3,000 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.