Washington State Legislature Passes Historic Climate Bills

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Kaylee Shen, president of Climate Action Club.

Lauren Wilson, Journalist

After years of failing to pass substantial climate legislation through the Washington state legislature, Washington state became one of the first states in the nation to introduce a bill that would pave the way for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

The Washington State Legislature passed SB 5126, also known as the Climate Commitment Act, on April 24, 2021. Despite an extensive amount of proposed climate bills in past years, the vast majority of them did not make it through the state legislature or were not approved by voters. Since 2008, the Washington state legislature has declined two bills which would have put a definitive cap on carbon emissions. Voters have also rejected two initiatives which would have created a carbon tax to regulate the amount of carbon emissions locally. Despite these setbacks climate activists have encountered, SB 5126 marks the beginning of a new wave of climate legislation.

The Climate Action Commitment Act is the first bill in the country to pave the way for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Due to the variety of the recent “environmental impacts due to climate change” such as “the increasingly devastating wildfires, flooding, droughts, rising temperatures and sea levels, and ocean acidification,” the legislature believes a bill of this magnitude is necessary (SB 5126). The bill outlines the process to net-zero carbon emissions by putting tangible limits on climate pollution, addressing environmental and economic benefits for disproportionately affected communities, putting a price on carbon as well as encouraging investment in cleaner sources of energy. The bill also puts a cap on carbon emissions through a cap-and-invest program, which aims to gradually lower the limit on carbon emissions through the years, according to the bill. Ms. Kirk, an environmental science teacher at Olympia High School, is glad this 58-page bill also includes a section about food waste. “When we think about major [greenhouse gas] producers we often (rightly) think about transportation and energy, but we neglect to realize that the leftovers we threw out last night also contribute in a major way. It is something tangible that each one of us, regardless of age, can act to reduce,” Ms. Kirk adds. Nearly one-third of all food produced gets wasted. As food waste enters landfills, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is at least twenty-five times more potent than carbon dioxide in contributing to climate change. 

As of April 2021, there were multiple bills that prioritise climate change and work to reduce carbon emissions in addition to the Climate Commitment Act. HB 1287, also known as Clean Cars 2030, attempts to decrease carbon emissions by banning the sale of new gasoline cars by 2030 as well as applying a “per-mile road usage fee” or mile tax. This bill has striked some controversy among Washington state residents. While Kaylee Shen, a senior and president of the Climate Action Club at Olympia High School, recognizes the need for taxes to build sustainable infrastructure, she would rather “see a tax on corporations to reduce their emissions rather than a tax directly on individual people since corporate profit margins have a far greater capacity to take tax increases than families. [She’d] also rather see larger incentives like tax breaks if you buy electric cars instead of adding a tax.” Additionally, Carissa Putt, a senior at OHS, is hesitant to endorse a bill that adds a mile tax on all gas cars. As a high school athlete who drives at least thirty miles to get to swim practices everyday, Putt believes this bill to be “overzealous for not just [her] family but [for] other students who have long commutes for sports or for adults who have long commutes for work.” Putt adds that while she is glad Washington is taking steps to hold people accountable for carbon emissions, she believes that taxing companies for carbon emissions or offering subsides to businesses that are environmentally friendly would be a better option. However, with the deadline less than a decade away, many believe this controversial bill to be unrealistic. If the governor signs HB 1287, it would become the earliest deadline for gas cars to be off the market. 

While some describe these policies as aggressive, the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads scientists to believe humans are responsible for this major change in the climate, and thus, policies need to be put in place to reverse the damage. However, despite these legislative victories for climate activists, Ms. Kirk reminds people not to underestimate their own individual impact. “I think governmental regulation makes it easier for us to make some of the changes we will need to make. But, I think it’s important to recognize that there is also a strong individual commitment to change that is necessary,” Ms. Kirk says. 

With nations all across the world recognizing the need to transition to cleaner sources of energy, many believe the Climate Commitment Act is a good start to a more sustainable future. “I think we should give it a couple years, see where it succeeds and maybe fails and then work to address the failures then. Sometimes acting quick is better than acting perfect,” Shen says. Legislative efforts within the United States and abroad have continued to increase as the world slowly makes the transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources.