By Todd Myers
Here is a simple question: How should we measure the success of climate policy?
The answer should be, “By maximizing CO2 reduction for every dollar spent.”
This smart approach is standard practice for many private companies. Both Microsoft and Amazon spend on projects that are the fastest and most effective at reducing their impact on the climate.
For example, a government subsidy for rooftop solar in cloudy Western Washington costs about $200 to reduce one metric ton of CO2. Projects that capture methane at landfills cost less than $10 to gain the same benefit – 20 times more effective.
When it comes to public policy, however, many climate policies at the state and local level are based on metrics that are simplistic, baseless or even completely inaccurate. A few recent examples make the point.
After Congress passed a spending package on climate projects, one media analysis claimed it “marks the United States as a global leader in the effort” to reduce carbon emissions. By what metric does the package make the U.S. a “leader” according to the authors? They claimed, “it represents the largest climate investment in U.S. history.” Not most effective, just the most expensive.
Spending more doesn’t mean accomplishing more. The Congressional Budget Office reports the bill will subsidize a miniscule 11,000 electric vehicles nationwide in 2023. Climate policy expert Dr. Roger Pielke Jr. says he doubts the new law will live up to predictions stating it is “not remotely” likely “that U.S. electricity emissions decrease by 70% by 2031.”
Washington state is further evidence that how much we spend isn’t a good way to judge climate policy. Despite the rhetoric from Gov. Jay Inslee and large amounts of climate spending, Washington’s CO2 emissions have increased almost every year he has been in office.
Spokane’s proposed climate policies are another example. The draft of the city’s climate plan had scores for a variety of benefits officials claimed the plan would provide, including vague categories like “social benefit.” When I asked how that was calculated, city staff responded that “there are no formulas underlying the representations.” In other words, the numbers were made up.
Even those who claim to have data get it wrong.
In Southwest Washington, Vancouver’s draft Climate Action Plan claims the cost of the city’s inaction would amount to more than $13 million per year. When I asked city staff where they got this number, they claimed, “the city and its residents would realize (on average over the next 20 years) the full value of $13 million annual cost savings,” if the CAP was successful.
This is simply incorrect and shows city staff don’t understand their own data.
The $13 million uses costs from the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission, which notes that this amount includes “the full (global) damages caused by GHG emissions,” not just in Vancouver. The vast majority of that theoretical $13 million in benefits would go to people outside the city. Residents would see only the tiniest percentage – Vancouver is about 0.002% of worldwide population – for a total of $318.33. And for that tiny benefit, Vancouver residents would pay $9 million.
However, even that calculation overstates it. Washington’s new cap on greenhouse gas emissions will take effect in 2023 and mandates statewide CO2 reductions. City plans, like in Vancouver and Spokane, do not add to the already mandated reductions but simply spend more money to achieve reductions that would otherwise occur. In other words, the environmental benefit of city climate plans is likely to be zero.
Washington state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on climate projects while missing every CO2 target. Even as they fail, those same politicians claim to be “leaders” on climate change. Too many are believing them and ignoring the real-world results.
We know a lot about how to address the risk of climate change, effectively and relatively inexpensively. But as long as politicians in Vancouver, Spokane, Olympia and Washington, D.C., get away with misleading math and ridiculous rhetoric, the risks from climate change will grow even as we waste more taxpayer money.
Todd Myers is environmental director at the Washington Policy Center. He previously worked at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and serves on the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council. Members of the Cowles family, owners of The Spokesman-Review, have previously hosted fundraisers for the Washington Policy Center and sit on the organization’s board.