Concerns over whether King County and local cities are on track to meet their climate goals have prompted a group of citizens and organizations to band together to push for more robust climate change solutions.
In 2015, King County and 13 cities signed on to a climate initiative known as King County-Cities Climate Collaboration, or K4C. It outlined a commitment to reduce greenhouse emissions compared to by 25 percent of 2007 levels by 2020, 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. The initiative also suggested implementing policies that would put a price on carbon, reduce vehicle miles traveled, concentrate urban growth and push for renewable energy use.
Now, a group comprised of residents and environmental groups — a coalition tentatively known as K5C — is saying that the county and municipalities are not following through. The group is hosting a meeting on May 19 at the East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue to discuss strategies to put more pressure on municipalities to meet those emissions goals.
“Most of the cities don’t have concrete plans about how they’re going to achieve this greenhouse gas emissions, plans that can be measured,” said K5C member Kristi Weir. “Even though they signed on to this, there has not been funding and a specific plan put forward.”
King County tracks progress through periodic snapshots of its performance. A comprehensive review of progress is due out by June 30. Matt Kuharic, senior climate change specialist for King County’s Department of Natural Resources, said progress so far has been a mixed bag. In areas the county has direct control over, such as promoting transit use, switching vehicle fleets to cleaner fuels and managing forests, the county has been fairly successful.
However, finding ways to reduce emissions community-wide has been more challenging.
“Those are harder and specifically when you look at our overarching greenhouse gas targets, which is in a lot of ways the bottom line, we’ve made some progress, but we’re not meeting our community-scale greenhouse gas targets,” Kuharic said.
According to a 2016 greenhouse emissions update, King County Metro ridership had been holding steady with around 125 million passenger boardings per year, with a 2020 goal of 142 million boardings. A goal of reducing energy use to 101.4 trillion BTU by 2030 countywide has seen some progress but the county used 132 trillion in 2016, a slight uptick from the previous year. Renewable energy use as a percentage of all power in the county took a dive in 2016 to 59 percent, down from 70 percent the year before. Importantly, vehicle emissions make up a large portion of emissions across the county and vehicle miles driven have increased from 12.7 billion miles in 2012 to 14.3 billion miles in 2016.
Kuharic said despite the increases in some areas, the estimated per-person carbon footprint decreased an estimated eight percent in 2015 compared to 2017. It’s a sign of progress, but one that is offset by a growing population in Puget Sound. While more people in the region signals a strong economy, it has also led to greater amounts of greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere.
Another big issue Kuharic identified were emissions from electricity providers — Puget Sound Energy, in particular. PSE still relies on coal-powered electricity for 37 percent of its total energy. This is likely to change by 2025, when the Centralia Power Plant shuts down and as the utility’s use of the Colstrip plant in Montana faces mounting pressure from environmental activists.
Kuharic said cities and the county have encouraged PSE to use more renewable energy and develop the Green Direct program, which gives cities the option to purchase entirely renewable energy from PSE through longer contracts. Some 171 megawatts of this will come from a new wind farm known as the Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project located in southwest Washington.
Other projects include the county’s goal to plant one million trees by 2020 in partnership with cities and organizations.
Some cities in the K4C coalition are working on a public-facing web portal, which will allow residents to see how they are doing in meeting their climate goals. Bellevue has already begun maintaining a webpage and other cities will likely follow, Kuharic said. However, Kuharic said county-wide metrics are a relatively accurate way of gauging progress. Large studies are expensive and smaller cities may not be able to finance them as readily as the county.
“We know what we need to do to reduce emissions so there’s a bigger focus on that than sometimes doing the ongoing reporting because we already have a pretty good sense of what the issues are,” Kuharic said.
Meeting emissions goals will also depend on cues from the state and federal government. President Donald Trump’s administration has proposed severely curbing Obama-era regulations mandating that new vehicles cut emissions by 50 percent by 2025. Forbes reported the Trump administration is considering freezing emissions goals at 2020 levels through 2026.
At the state level, activists have begun collecting signatures to place a carbon fee on the November ballot, which would level a $15 per ton fee on carbon emissions from large carbon emitters beginning in 2020. This would rise by $2 per ton annually, adjusted for inflation, until it hit roughly $55 per ton in 2035 when it would either freeze or continue to rise depending on how the state was meeting its own climate goals. Two previously proposed carbon taxes have failed in both a general ballot vote and in the state legislature.
Kuharic said it will take even more coordination between local, state and federal levels to meet local greenhouse gas emissions goals.
“I think that the county would agree that we’re not on track to our community-scale targets, but there are really positive ways that the county and cities are both directly doing things like providing transit or supporting renewable energy development in our region, but to get to those big picture targets you really need people working together,” he said.
Members of the K5C group believes more could be done locally to tackle emissions. Court Olson is a member of Climate Solutions and works as a green building consultant. He’s worried that the ambitious goals set by the county haven’t had enough organization and resources put towards them.
“The county, along with a few cities have nibbled around the edges of that challenge and done a few things,” he said. “No significant reduction has happened yet and we’re two years away from the 2020 target.”
This has led to residents of many of the Eastside cities party to K4C getting together to push for a measured action plan that can be reviewed on an annual basis. Groups that will by at the May 19 community meeting include the Sierra Club, Eastside citizen groups, 350 Eastside and Indivisible Eastside, among others.
Olson additionally wants to see cities hire outside organizations to conduct analysis and recommend strategies to meet greenhouse emissions goals. He pointed to a successful program by the Rocky Mountain Institute that led Fort Collins, Colorado, to dramatically reduce its emissions.
“We want these different cities and the county who pooled together and said they’re going to do this to actually come up with a plan,” Olson said.