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Washington's carbon footprint keeps growing. This time, buildings and planes are to blame

caption: The A concourse at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in front of Mt. Rainier in December 2017.
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The A concourse at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in front of Mt. Rainier in December 2017.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Despite efforts to tame it, Washington state’s impact on the climate keeps growing, according to the latest data available.

Local backsliding on the planetary crisis has continued, though elected officials have long portrayed our region, and themselves, as leaders in tackling heat-trapping pollution.

But Seattle’s greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise.

They were 3.3% higher in 2018 than in 2016, according to the city’s first tally of its climate impact in nearly two years. A preliminary annual count from the Washington Department of Ecology shows statewide output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases rose 1.4% in 2018.

Climate-damaging pollution grew more slowly than the state's population did. Still, by state law, greenhouse gas emissions need to be shrinking — not growing.

And by the laws of physics, emissions worldwide need to plummet if humanity is to fend off the most catastrophic impacts of a rapidly heating world.

"Over the last few years, emissions have been flat to slightly rising in Washington" said Andrew Wineke, a spokesperson for the state Department of Ecology. "We expect that trend will continue."

Cars and trucks remained Seattle’s biggest climate culprits, even as their total carbon emissions fell slightly in 2018. The average car on the road got better miles per gallon than in previous years.

Two other factors swelled Seattle’s growing carbon footprint: Rising air travel by residents and more natural gas use in buildings.

Emissions from jet fuel jumped by 9% from 2016 to 2018, closing the gap with gasoline as Seattle’s main pollution source. Airplane emissions were up by more than half over the previous six years.

“It’s terrifying that not only are we not reducing our climate pollution in line with what science and justice demand, but we’re not reducing it at all,” said Alec Connon, a 350 Seattle climate activist, in an email.

Emissions from buildings, mostly from natural gas (or “fossil gas,” as city officials now call it) jumped 8%.

Making new buildings cleaner

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan earlier this month proposed banning the use of natural gas in most new construction.

“We are facing a climate disaster. It is up to Seattle and other cities to make the bold changes necessary to lower our greenhouse gas emissions,” Durkan said in a press release announcing the proposed gas ban.

A similar ban in 2019 did not have Durkan’s support; she suggested it would boost the cost of housing. The proposal died in Seattle City Council after energy-industry and labor groups opposed it.

The new ban, to be considered by the city council in January, would not affect existing buildings or cover all new buildings. State law prohibits cities from imposing tighter energy codes on residential buildings less than four stories tall.

Buildings are the state’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Washington Department of Commerce.

Modernizing old buildings

Commerce officials unveiled a new state rule in November to tackle climate pollution from existing buildings. The rule makes Washington the first state to require owners of big buildings to clean up their acts.

Starting next summer, the state will offer cash incentives to commercial building owners who retrofit their buildings to save energy.

“Usually it’s these larger buildings that suck up a huge percentage of the energy, right?” said Amarpreet Sethi, a Seattle-based building engineer.

Still, don’t uncork any climate champagne just yet. Building owners won’t be required to make their structures more energy efficient until the year 2026.

“Incentives are great, but it’s when things become mandatory when you really see things happen,” Sethi said.

Washington Department of Commerce officials said building owners need the half-decade or more to do energy retrofits at the lowest cost.

New York City, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., have passed similar legislation. In New York City, the most-polluting buildings have to make improvements by 2024.

Slow results

Seattle has had an “action plan” to eliminate its carbon emissions since 2013. Last year’s local Green New Deal law pushed that commitment into high gear, requiring the city to be fully carbon neutral in a decade.

Under a law passed in March, Washington state has a less stringent mandate: It has until 2050 to achieve a 95% reduction in carbon pollution. In the short term, a 2008 law requires Washington to cut emissions down to 1990 levels by 2020.

With pollution inexorably increasing, the state has been on track to violate that decade-old mandate. But the Covid-19 lockdowns may have inadvertently enabled it to stay within the legal limit for 2020 after all.

“We can’t rely on a pandemic. That is no way to reduce greenhouse gases,” said Wineke with the Department of Ecology. “We need sustainable policies — policies that allow a strong economy as well.”

The economic downturn associated with the Covid-19 pandemic caused a temporary 7% drop in global carbon emissions in 2020, the United Nations Environment Programme reported on Wednesday.

That’s after the world’s emissions rose 2.6% in 2019, reaching an all-time high.

The U.N. report said the Covid-caused dip was only enough to lower the global temperature 0.01 degree Celsius in 2050, but that concerted international effort could help stave off dangerous amounts of warming.

Driving blind

Closer to home, no carbon pollution estimates are available yet for 2019 or 2020.

Washington state’s climate-pollution inventory for 2018 is expected out by the end of the year, while the city of Seattle released its 2018 report last week.

“Having this long a lag doesn’t provide the feedback you need about whether you’re making progress or not,” said Daniel Malarkey, a fellow with the Seattle-based think tank Sightline Institute. “If we really are serious about reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, we need quicker feedback mechanisms to adjust policy.”

Washington’s emissions have risen 6% since Jay Inslee, reportedly being considered for a climate post in the Biden administration, became governor in 2013.

“Despite citing it as the top priority for the Inslee administration since 2013, the state has repeatedly failed to cut CO2 emissions,” Todd Myers with the conservative Washington Policy Center said in an email.

Inslee is expected to roll out new proposals for decarbonizing the state’s economy later this month, while Democratic state legislators plan to introduce a revised proposal for a carbon tax measure, which has repeatedly failed to gain traction in the state.

Backers hope they will have better luck this time by pairing the tax with “green bonds” to pay for $16 billion in climate-friendly stimulus spending.

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