Task force considers carbon pricing options

The U.S. and China reached a significant joint commitment last week to reduce carbon emissions over the next decade. Yesterday, Gov. Jay Inslee’s Carbon Emissions Reduction Taskforce (CERT) made recommendations for a Washington state market-based carbon pollution program.

The international climate deal created a positive backdrop for Inslee’s task force, which analyzed the pros and cons of implementing either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system in Washington, and made suggestions about how to design and implement policy based on either approach.

Yet it stopped short of recommending one strategy over the other. That will disappoint those who want to move more quickly.

Still, CERT recognized the dangers of the unabated release of carbon into the atmosphere, and that it will take comprehensive policy to reach our statutory carbon emission limits.

For example, as part of China’s commitment, the nation will ramp up its reliance on renewable, non-fossil fuel energy to 20 percent by 2030. That seems low by Northwest standards, but the astounding scope of that promise cannot be understated.

To achieve that goal, China will build a clean-energy infrastructure equal to the entire existing capacity of the U.S. electrical system. A key component of the system will include expansion of China’s experiments with market-based carbon pricing programs.

A carbon tax – one of the proposals discussed in Inslee’s task force – encourages industries to limit pollution by taxing them for every ton of carbon dioxide produced. A cap-and-trade system would set a ceiling on statewide carbon emissions, and create a market for higher emitters to purchase credits from those who emit fewer greenhouse gases.

Either option would have a small positive effect on the state’s economy, according to the Office of Financial Management. OFM projects a slight increase in jobs, personal income and the state’s gross domestic product.

What’s important about the OFM report is that neither carbon reduction program would have a negative effect on the economy, as both state and federal Republicans have suggested.

In fact, a carbon tax could help solve the Legislature difficult budgeting issues for 2015-2017 and beyond. As the governor has said, legislators will eventually conclude they cannot meet all of their court-ordered mandates and other obligations without some additional revenues.

Instead of asking individuals and small business to pay more, a carbon tax requires the polluters to pay. It makes sense to tax something harmful, as we do cigarettes, and use the money to improve something beneficial, such as education, mental health or state parks.

Inslee’s carbon pricing options shouldn’t be a tough sell to the Legislature. It’s already a requirement of state law to reduce our state’s carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, so that’s not up for debate. The question is how to get there.

A carbon pricing program provides a pathway toward cleaner energy. It also sets an example for others states to take responsibility for slowing the production of greenhouse gases.