Washington Governor Jay Inslee has published the broad outlines of the climate change mitigation plan he staked his presidential campaign on.
The proposal would require 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, as well as 100 percent clean new vehicles and new buildings by 2030. Inslee said from the get-go that his candidacy would be dedicated to climate change, but waited to release a plan until Friday.
In the meantime, he helped pass a bill in Washington that requires 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. That bill puts Washington in the company of Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., which have legally committed to decarbonizing their grids. It also gives Inslee a concrete victory to refer to in arguing that his plan is feasible.
While Inslee is running as the climate action candidate in the 2020 presidential election, fellow Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke beat him to the punch by releasing his own climate change plan earlier in the week.
O'Rourke's climate change policy aims to achieve net-zero emissions nationwide by 2050, and specifies which executive actions he would take on day one in the White House, and which items he would propose via legislation. It also dedicates a section to making communities more resilient to extreme weather events.
The close timing of the policy launches sets up a new dynamic for this primary election cycle: an actual debate over how best to tackle the threat of climate change and overhaul the U.S. economy.
Instead of generic affirmations of clean energy, candidates are sparring over who will go far enough to tackle the issue.
"I’ve been leading on this for over a decade and a half," Inslee told The Daily Beast. "I think it’s great that people follow my leadership late, but better late than never."
From Washington to Washington
Inslee argues that the coalition he built around the law in Washington state makes a good model for passing policies in Washington, D.C.
The state legislation phases out coal power by 2025, demands carbon-neutral power by 2030 and then full carbon-free status by 2045.
The bill also included a number of clauses, outlined well by David Roberts of Vox, to protect labor groups that will be affected by the transition away from fossil fuels and to give utilities new incentives for making money in a way that aligns with the state's environmental goals.
Inslee's national proposal calls for eliminating coal power and achieving 100 percent carbon-neutral power by 2030, before moving to "all-clean, renewable and zero-emission energy in electricity generation by 2035." This goal would be codified in a national Clean Energy Standard, similar to the state-level standards that have driven considerable investment in clean energy.
A slew of policy tools would help affect this change, including tax incentives for developing clean energy projects, support for workers and communities that depend on coal power, and fast-tracking renewables and transmission development on federal lands. It would promote performance-based utility regulation, so energy companies have better incentives to reduce carbon emissions.
The plan prioritizes a just transition, as called for by the Green New Deal and progressive climate activists. This includes assurances of good wages and collective bargaining for clean energy jobs and specific supports for front-line and low-income communities.
The proposal does not grapple with the salient differences between Washington state and the nation as a whole. Inslee's home already has reduced coal and gas to less than a quarter of the electricity mix, thanks to an abundance of hydropower resources in the region. Hydro delivers about 68 percent of the state's power.
Nationally, coal and gas supply 62.5 percent of the electricity mix, according to Energy Information Administration data from 2018. Hydro supplies 7 percent.
Despite Washington's significant head start, Inslee's policy proposal gives the state an extra decade to decarbonize compared to what he calls for from the nation as a whole.
The plan does not explain why the timeline that worked for Washington does not work for the U.S., although it's possible that political pressure played a role. O'Rourke's climate policy was criticized by the Sunrise Movement, a progressive youth climate group, for setting a net-zero emissions deadline of 2050 instead of 2030. Inslee's campaign had a few days to process that before publishing its plan.
His plan left out details, however, like which actions Inslee could take with executive power as opposed to legislative action. "Much of this plan" will be doable with existing executive branch authorities and programs, the introduction notes, without specifying which parts exactly.
The campaign promised "additional major policies" in the coming weeks.
Clean electricity is just one piece of the greenhouse gas emissions puzzle. Inslee prioritized vehicle and building emissions in his three-pronged strategy.
He wants a standard for clean cars that would ramp to 100 percent of new light- and medium-duty vehicles by 2030. Inslee would accompany that top-line goal with action to grow the U.S. manufacturing base for clean vehicles, and to ensure the benefits of clean vehicles are spread among different populations.
The last pillar of the platform calls for a Zero-Carbon Building Standard by 2023 to eliminate fossil fuel usage for heating and cooling buildings.
This section proposes energy efficiency standards to grow U.S. manufacturing for zero-emission appliances, as well as methods to mobilize public and private capital to fund new builds and retrofits.
In short, electricity, vehicles and buildings would each get a standard of their own. This still leaves agriculture and industrial processes, which constitute a significant portion of U.S. emissions, and would be captured by the net-emissions framework O'Rourke proposed.
O'Rourke provided more specifics on the procedural mechanisms for implementing his climate change agenda, and how much money he would allocate to specific efforts. Inslee remained vague on those details, but made clear his intention to work with organized labor and utilities, as he did in Washington. Cooperation from those groups has proven critical to climate action in places like California and New Mexico.
The competing proposals are just starting points for a debate that will continue throughout the Democratic primary about how to address an issue that has long been sidelined from presidential politics.
Learn more about Beto O'Rourke's climate plan and how it played among Democrats on the Political Climate podcast.