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Jay Inslee promised serious climate policy and he is delivering

The Democratic candidate for president is getting into the nuts and bolts of decarbonization.

Presidential Candidate Jay Inslee Visits LA Cleantech Incubator In Los Angeles
Jay Inslee
Mario Tama/Getty Images

From the beginning, federal climate politics in the US have been dominated by symbolism and signaling. Republicans dismiss climate change or call it a liberal plot. Democrats say, “We believe in science!” Activists argue over long-term targets and who cares most.

With the brief exception of 2009-2010, when the Waxman-Markey climate bill was up for debate, the national focus rarely stays for long on the nuts and bolts of policy itself.

Lately, though, climate change has become, according to a recent CNN poll, the single most important issue to Democratic primary voters. After years and years of stumbling along as a second- or third- (or tenth-) tier concern, it’s finally getting its moment in the spotlight.

The Green New Deal and the grassroots energy behind it have ensured that every one of the Democrats running for president will be forced to prioritize climate change. There’s finally going to be a policy discussion.

All right, we’re transitioning off fossil fuels. How? Where are we starting, how are we sequencing, and what tools are we using?

Most of the candidates are not ready to talk about it. Their hearts are in the right place, for the most part, but they don’t have much depth on the issue and don’t speak on it with much authenticity. Very few national Democrats really do. You don’t have to know much to say, “I believe in science.”

Last week, 2020 hopeful Beto O’Rourke opened the climate-policy bidding with a climate plan. It’s a somewhat peculiar creature, best described by Julian Noisecat of the think tank Data For Progress: It reads “like the movement had a baby with a consultant.”

That’s dead on, with both positive and less positive implications.

In the positive column, it is quite clear that the Green New Deal and the movement behind it have indelibly shaped the Democratic primary. Beto’s plan targets economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050, proposes a moratorium on oil and gas leasing, promises to prioritize frontline communities, and headlines $5 trillion in investments. All of that bears the imprint of the GND. The consultant-speak, focus on leveraging private investment, and attention to the incremental possibilities of executive power to create a kind of gloss over the proposal, help it appeal to normies.

In the less positive column, it feels like a product of the moment, designed to tick various boxes. I don’t hear any singular sensibility or coherent approach in it, something that might offer a hint of how O’Rourke would prioritize as president.

All of which brings us to Washington governor and presidential contender Jay Inslee, who on Friday released the first of what he promises will be a series of proposals on climate policy. Together, they will form what he calls his Climate Mission agenda.

It is probably fair to say that Inslee is not a favorite to win the Democratic contest. But if this first salvo is any indication, he is at the very least going to substantially elevate the level of climate policy debate. This is policy made by a team that’s been sweating over the details for years, bringing a level of sophistication and experience that is much needed.

All the policy discussion may all be for naught if Democrats fail to take Inslee’s advice and kill the Senate filibuster. But Democrats need the debate regardless, to be better prepared whenever a window of opportunity opens.

Step one of Climate Mission: electricity, new cars, and new buildings

The Climate Mission agenda will target economy-wide net-zero carbon emissions “as fast as possible, and by no later than 2045.” (The Sunrise Movement activists behind the GND feel strongly that the US should target net-zero by 2030.)

That’s the overall goal. But the focus of the agenda will be a ten-year mobilization, per the GND. That will involve an array of policies targeted at various sectors, which the campaign will release over the coming months.

The first piece, out last Friday, is the “100 percent Clean Energy for America Plan.” It lays out three high-level targets for 2030:

  • 100 percent carbon-neutral electricity;
  • 100 percent zero-emissions in new light- and medium-duty vehicles and all buses;
  • 100 percent zero-carbon pollution in all new commercial and residential buildings.

Collectively, electricity, transportation, and buildings are responsible for 70 percent of US carbon emissions, so in many ways this is the central and most significant plant of the agenda. (The campaign promises policy on existing vehicles and existing buildings — in many ways trickier problems — in subsequent proposals.)

Let’s look at a few quick highlights from each area.

Getting the carbon out of electricity

Here, Inslee’s policy is modeled after the 100-percent-clean bill his own state of Washington just passed. It sets a clean energy standard (CES) whereby all utilities must deliver carbon-neutral power by 2030 and 100 percent “clean, renewable and zero-emission” electricity by 2035.

Two notes. First, “carbon neutral” is a specific term of art. It means that if utilities fall short of 100 percent clean electricity in 2030, they can make up the difference by investing in other carbon-reducing projects, like, say, energy efficiency retrofits for customers. It’s a clever way to induce non-federal investment in those projects.

Second, the language here — “clean, renewable and zero-emission” — pointedly leaves room for hydro, nuclear, and fossil fuels or biomass with carbon capture, a small-c catholic approach to “clean energy” that I think makes sense.

clean and renewable energy standards in the us
Renewable and clean energy standards are catching on at the state level.

Getting to zero-carbon electricity also involves a host of complementary policies:

  • offering refundable tax credits for clean-energy projects, tied to job-quality standards, such that developers can only get the full credit if they make good-faith efforts to pay union wages, hire union labor, seek out woman- and minority-owned contractors, etc.; this both spurs clean energy development and ensures that it creates high-quality jobs;
  • investing in frontline communities (like communities where coal plants are shut down) for worker and community transition assistance and community-based projects;
  • working with utilities to encourage on-bill financing of efficiency and distributed energy projects;
  • accelerating the evolution toward performance-based utility regulation (more on PBR in this post);
  • increasing renewable energy development on federal lands and waters;
  • expanding existing federal energy financing programs like the Department of Energy Loan Guarantee Program;
  • expanding the long-distance transmission system to better distribute renewable energy (here, in particular, Inslee’s team shows its familiarity with existing regulatory structures and how they can be tweaked to perform better; there’s a reference to “Dynamic Line Ratings,” a phrase you probably won’t hear again in the primary).

This is good stuff, centered on what ought to be the first item on any serious national climate agenda: a CES that gets to zero-carbon electricity as fast as possible. Clean power will make everything else easier. It’s technologically feasible, and there are state models for how to do it, including Washington.

Also, it can be used as a lever to move the transportation sector. Speaking of which ...

Getting the carbon out of new cars

Inslee’s policy focuses on “new light-duty passenger vehicles, medium-duty trucks, and buses,” which together represent about 70 percent of transportation emissions.

The centerpiece here is cranking up CAFE standards until they effectively mandate 100 percent zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) for all new sales in 2030 forward. (This is, notably, something within the president’s power to do without Congress, though it will by no means be easy or straightforward.)

EVs charging
EVs, charging.

That core piece is again attended by a host of complementary policies:

  • a national low-carbon fuels standard (LCFS), which would encourage low-emissions transportation fuels
  • investments in the US ZEV manufacturing base and in battery recycling
  • expanded ZEV tax credits and feebates
  • a “Clean Cars for Clunkers” program that would establish “fuel-economy based trade-in rebates for consumers to exchange their fuel-inefficient cars or trucks for new ZEVs”
  • rapid electrification of the federal vehicle fleet and efforts to work with states to do the same for state fleets
  • massive investment in EV charging infrastructure
  • federal financing for state and local efforts to retire gas and diesel buses in exchange for electric buses (which, as I have argued, are going to be the cutting edge of the EV market)

This stepwise increase in the market for electric vehicles will work in sync with clean electricity to tackle two of the biggest carbon problems at once. And cleaner, quieter vehicles — especially quieting the incessant din of city buses — will provide an immediate and tangible benefit to the public.

This leaves plenty in transportation (notably heavy trucks and airplanes) untouched for now. The campaign promises subsequent policy on that stuff and, crucially, on efforts to reduce vehicle use through urban density and public transit. But this is a solid foundation.

Getting the carbon out of new buildings

Finally, full decarbonization means squeezing the carbon emissions out of buildings, one of the most difficult challenges of all. Efforts on that score have already begun at the state level, including in Washington, and Inslee’s policy builds on those efforts.

The centerpiece is the creation of a national Zero-Carbon Building Standard by 2023, working with states to integrate it into state and local codes, along with stronger federal incentives for states and cities to adopt building “stretch codes.” (Los Angeles recently announced a similar plan, targeting all zero-carbon new buildings by 2030.)

Again, along with that comes a suite of complementary policies:

  • eliminating fossil fuel use in “all new and renovated federal buildings” by 2023
  • accelerating appliance energy efficiency standards and promoting zero-emission appliances
  • establishing tax incentives for energy efficiency and electrification in new residential and commercial construction
  • increasing financing for upgrades of schools and public buildings
  • renewing the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) Program to help fund local zero-carbon construction projects
  • some even wonkier stuff, about REITs and ESPCs and what have you

The is a push-and-pull approach, with stronger building and efficiency standards pushing and greater federal funding and investment pulling. As I said, it leaves aside the rather more difficult task of what to do about the carbon emissions of existing buildings, but the campaign promises to address that in the next tranche of policies.

Seattle’s Bullitt Center, arguably the greenest building in the country.
Seattle’s Bullitt Center, arguably the greenest building in the country.
Bullitt Center

Getting into the policy details can make radicalism seem more manageable

The problem with climate debates waged over symbolism is that they encourage everyone to retreat to their identity-based camps and dig in.

Nothing can entirely prevent polarization in these most polarized of times, but one thing that can help dampen it is to take the discussion out of the clouds, out of the realm of competing symbols, and into the dirt and soil of policy work.

Approach a small city and tell it socialists are coming to steal its cows, you’ll get backlash. Tell it there’s a national push to decarbonize buildings underway, and that there will be an array of regulatory sticks and investment carrots ensuring that everyone moves along together, and that the city can prosper — economically and reputationally — by adopting stretch goals and outpacing other cities ... it’s just a different kind of conversation.

Policy, even if people don’t track the details, implicitly makes all the grand goals and targets seem more tangible and achievable. “Decarbonize by 2050” is unwieldy, almost purely symbolic to most people. But a program of sticks and carrots — tightened vehicle fuel-economy and fuel carbon-intensity standards coupled with investments to stand up US ZEV manufacturing capacity and make ZEVs cheaper for consumers — well, that you can wrap your head around. That you can begin to envision.

Policy is how we stop discussing “whether” and start discussing “how.” Mainstream Democrats need to become more fluent in this policy language and familiar with these policy options. Perhaps Inslee’s thoughtful proposals will, if nothing else, spur the other candidates to devote the resources and staffing to this area of policy that it deserves. It’s time to raise the bar.