King County GHG goal, policy “disconnect”

King County GHG goal, policy “disconnect”
King County aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 – but it’s not even close to achieving its 2020 reduction goals that were set in 2008. Photo: rawpixel.com

A criticism often leveled against government environmental efforts is the disconnect between climate goals and what is actually achieved. Washington state and local governments over the years have set numerous greenhouse gas (GHG) emission goals that have not been met – sometimes by significant margins.

King County last week released its 2020 Strategic Climate Action Plan Update that calls for a 50 percent reduction in GHG emissions by 2030. King County in 2008 set a goal to reduce emissions by 25 percent below 2007 levels by 2020.

The plan update cites numerous accomplishments made since 2015, including:

  • Highest transit ridership growth rate in the nation in 2017;
  • Almost 99 percent of new residential development in urban growth areas (UGA); and
  • 99 percent of county government electricity generated by renewable or carbon-free sources.

Yet, the action plan concedes that “work remains to be done” achieving the county’s actual reduction goals. A 2019 report found that as of 2017 the county had reduced emissions by just 1.2 percent – less than five percent of its goal. While the county argues that this still represents an 11-percent reduction in emissions per capita, Washington Policy Center Environmental Director Todd Myers said the new climate action plan represents a “disconnect between the overall goal and the policy to meet that goal. There’s no monitoring and adjusting as we go along. They just keep doing the same thing.”

It’s an approach the state has also seemingly taken. After a 2019 Ecology report found the state is failing to meet the GHG emission goals set in 2008, the legislature enacted a law creating even more ambitious reduction goals, including zero carbon emissions in the state by 2050.

In addition to a 50-percent reduction in GHG emissions, the county’s updated climate action plan calls for greater residential development near transit centers and planting three million trees over the next five years. Although a state road usage charge (RUC) program is currently being explored by the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC), the county’s action plan envisions an RUC as a way “to reduce countywide vehicle miles traveled” as well as “fund transit and ensure rates are reduced for people with low incomes.”

However, Myers say the county “is doing things that are absolutely, completely ineffective” compared to public utilities such as Seattle City Lights that in 2005 became the first electric utility to achieve zero net greenhouse gas emissions. The utility offsets its emissions through renewable energy sources such as methane from dairy farms and landfills, as well as local food and yard waste composting.

“Seattle City Lights is doing things that work, “Myers said. “If you believe the risk for climate change is overblown, you should be outraged. We have lots of other problems in King County where we could put the money. If you believe climate change is a crisis, you should be even more angry at King County, because they are completely failing to take this seriously.”

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