Support The Wire

Q&A: Sen. Reuven Carlyle on climate policy

Sen. Reuven Carlyle chairs the Senate Environment, Energy and Technology and was instrumental in passing a number of climate bills in recent years, including as the prime sponsor of the Climate Commitment Act. Carlyle will be speaking at the UN Climate Change Convention in Glasgow, which begins on Oct. 31. 

We spoke with Carlyle to see what comes next for climate policy and implementation in Washington State. 

Aaron Kunkler: The last few years have seen a number of significant pieces of climate legislation pass the legislature. What comes next? 

Sen. Reuven Carlyle: I think, first and foremost, it’s incredibly important to recognize and understand and acknowledge that we as a state have embraced net-zero, science-based targets, Paris Agreement level objectives. And in doing so, that means an incredibly serious recognition that our statutory emission limits in being updated in 2020 are incredibly serious. We have to reach 95%, below 1990 levels, to achieve net zero emissions. So to put that in practical reality, in 2018, we emitted just slightly under 100 million metric tons of emissions. And by 2050, we have to continue to grow our economy, build our economy, build our quality of life, but emit 5 million metric tons. So just the cold, hard reality of that journey is an important guiding principle. 

Now, having said that, we know that about 45% of those emissions are associated with transportation, about 16% are associated with electricity, about 23% is residential, commercial and industrial heating, and everything else is about 15-plus percent. So every single sector needs a deep decarbonization strategy and plan. 

In our state, we have a deep decarbonization plan for electricity. That’s the 100% clean energy bill that we passed a few years ago. We arguably have a very strong and compelling transportation strategy with a combination of the clean fuel standard, and the investments in electrification. We have a strong building strategy with the updated commercial building standards, and all the work that we’re doing on natural gas. We have an economy-wide pricing mechanism in the cap-and-invest trading program that ensures that the top 125 or so emitters have a trading mechanism that has an actual cap on a mission. So the core policy, political and strategic strategy approach here is both a sector-based strategy and an economy-wide strategy. 

We have to be focused on effective implementation. We have passed many of the bills, including, of course, the HEAL Act regarding environmental justice principles, to embed in the work of all of our state agencies associated with this work. Implementation is not a department down the hall, it goes to the core of our responsibility to ensure that we not only have a chance of hitting net zero, and being one of the most effective states in the nation, but ensuring that we are also focused on quality of life for real people, living real lives. So as we decarbonize, we have to be deeply sensitive to the implications for all of these industries and all of these sectors. So implementation is job one, effective oversight and management, and that to me is essential to our success.

AK: The HEAL Act and embedding environmental justice into the clean energy transmission is something that departments across the state are figuring out how to implement. Do you have a sense of how that work is progressing?

RC: Ultimately, we designed the strategy of the grand bargain, and a lot of folks chuckled at it. But it was really a very important underpinning of all of this work. The four elements of the grand bargain were the Climate Commitment Act, the clean fuel standard, the HEAL Act, and Forward Washington, the transportation package. Three of the four have gotten over the line. I can’t say enough about the critical role that the HEAL Act has played. Environmental justice, and equity is at the core of the DNA, the essence of all of this work, and I think that has been an important difference. 

The implementation and the mechanics of the work is underway. But this is structural work and systems work, it’s deep and it’s authentic. That requires state agencies to understand the data of disproportionate impacts to look at the mapping that we have designed and to look at how their rules and regulations and their policies truly impact disproportionately impacted communities. 

AK: Natural gas is a hot topic right now, especially with power utilities relying on it to maintain grid reliability as they switch from coal sources. What are you thinking about in regards to natural gas in Washington?

RC: The natural gas issue at its core is incredibly important to our decarbonization. We put a proviso in the budget this year that requires the Utilities and Transportation Commission to examine the policy framework of what the elements of a natural gas decarbonization strategy would look like. So it’s sort of the foundational scraping and sanding and taping to prepare to paint the house that allows us to understand the implications of our sunk costs, sunk infrastructure, pipeline infrastructure, and to be very thoughtful. Natural gas plays an incredibly important role in reliability. You have to understand that integrating wind, hydro, solar, nuclear and other energy sources doesn’t happen overnight. And being extremely thoughtful about a decarbonization plan for natural gas takes a lot of scraping and sanding and taping and preparation. 

In addition, the buildings bill that we passed and the continuing work that the governor is doing on decarbonizing the building sector is incredibly important and linked to our natural gas efforts. I would argue that we are building the foundation for a comprehensive enterprise-wide approach to the future of natural gas. It is simply not an issue that you can pass an aspirational bill and hand it over to the bureaucracy, it takes an integrated approach, it takes a systems approach because of the central role in reliability that natural gas plays. So we’re taking it seriously, but I think that the building blocks, and particularly with the cap-and-invest program, some of the industrial sector folks may find high value in migrating away from some of their current energy sources. Everyone has to do it in a timely way that works for them.

AK: You were invited to speak about sub-national climate policy leadership at the UN Climate Change Conference beginning later this month in Glasgow. What role do states have in fighting climate change, even apart from federal policy?

RC: We need the federal government as a partner, we need them to be successful, but we do not have the luxury of sitting around and waiting… We just need them to be bolder and to act. And candidly, Washington State and other states are showing that serious climate work doesn’t have to be politically terrifying. It can be high value, high impact, improve people’s quality of life with clean jobs, union jobs, high quality economic activity, that is with a lower carbon footprint and sustainability at the core of the work. And we’re showing a pathway that I think is one of the reasons that people are so interested, engaged and excited to see actual bills, actual legislation, and actual policies be implemented at the state level.

Your support matters.

Public service journalism is important today as ever. If you get something from our coverage, please consider making a donation to support our work. Thanks for reading our stuff.