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Will Thurston’s latest climate mitigation plan make the difference?

The Thurston Climate Mitigation Plan: Framework for Climate Mitigation Action for Thurston County and the Cities of Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater was finished in December 2020 (Plan, 2020 Plan, TCMP). It starts out by listing several years of previous city and county resolutions, strategies, and plans – 1990, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2018 – all concerned with slowing global warming.

Unfortunately, we spent a lot of time and energy planning in order to get to pretty much the same list of actions other West Coast cities had put into climate plans before we started. We could have looked at those and then put the time, energy and money we have spent on several intensive rounds of planning since 2011 into doing those things.

The new plan is based on actual inventories of emissions produced in Thurston County and actual targets —a 45% reduction from 2015 levels of these emissions by 2030, and an 85% reduction by 2050. It focuses on what local governments can do, relying on consultants’ estimates of how much each of 71 identified strategies and actions would contribute to reaching the targets. It’s been adopted by Thurston County, Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater. All except Lacey have declared climate emergencies.

The consultants’ report also says repeatedly that the local actions in the Plan will only get us to the targets if we implement every one of them “aggressively.”

Despite improvements, we’re not on track to meet targets

Our most recent report, for 2021, shows a 4% decrease in our inventoried emissions since 2015, and an impressive 18% decrease in per capita emissions. (However, in 2019, total emissions were up 15% from 2015, and per capita emissions were up 6.5%. Some of the significant decreases in the last two years were due to changes during the Covid pandemic. It isn’t clear if they will last.) We still need another 41% reduction from 2015 to reach our 2030 target. The longer we wait to make the changes we need, the more rushed and difficult and expensive the process will be.

The inventory also doesn’t count everything

It’s a rough approximation, at best. It only covers about half our emissions, the ones produced inside the county. It doesn’t count emissions in other places associated with providing the food we eat, the stuff we buy, or most services like health care or the Internet. (These are also the ones it’s hard for local politicians to change; reducing them mostly depends on our personal choices. )

It does include the emissions from generating electricity outside the county and transmitting it here, as well those from producing the fossil fuels we burn locally. However, if I drive to Seattle or LA and back, it only counts the miles from my house to the county line.

The Plan includes estimates for reductions expected from the State and Federal programs in place in 2020, but the only basis it provides for these is the “professional judgment” of the consultants who did the analysis for it.

What it would take to achieve the targets

The consultants’ report also says repeatedly that the local actions in the Plan will only get us to the targets if we implement every one of them “aggressively.”

“These are our estimates of strategy metric reductions associated with aggressive deployment of all 71 TCMP Assessed Actions. … Assessed Actions approaches to transportation are generally aggressive… vehicle use is famously inelastic, so our 2050 estimate reflects very aggressive policymaking… …Target achievement requires not just aggressive GHG reduction, but also aggressive sequestration.”

Reductions associated with State and Federal programs are supposed to get us 74% of the way to the targets. However, the consultants judged that 69 of the 71 local actions they evaluated would only get us 57% of the additional reductions the Plan says we need to meet the targets.

They filled the gap (the additional 38% of what we need from local actions) with estimated reductions from carbon sequestration. Those would require planting 37,000 acres of new trees in the county, and converting about 30% of its agricultural land from conventional to regenerative agriculture.

(The estimated reductions from changing agriculture are less than 1% of those from new trees, and I don’t think anyone has any idea about how we might plant 37,000 acres of trees.) (1)

Fortunately, the Legislature has taken several steps aimed at reducing emissions since the Plan was adopted. They established a cap and invest program, passed a clean fuels bill, and required performance standards for existing buildings. These could take us a lot of the way toward filling the gap now assigned to “sequestration.”

The pace of emissions reduction matters

Framing a climate plan in terms of getting or not getting to a particular level of emissions by a particular year is simple, but somewhat misleading. It suggests that getting to a certain point in 2030 or 2050 is all that matters. In fact, any reductions we make will reduce our chances of ending up with increasingly unmanageable problems to some extent.

Our cumulative emissions are what matters as far as global warming is concerned. Reaching the targets is a shorthand way of talking about that, but it assumes that getting to the targets will involve steady reductions in emissions along the way, so our cumulative emissions will drop in the process.

If we did nothing to reduce our annual emissions between now and 2049, and then magically reduced them by 85% the next year, we’d reach the target, but we’d have put almost as many tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as if we did nothing. Doing something soon produces a bigger reduction in cumulative emissions, and a bigger contribution to slowing global warming, than doing the same thing later.

How much our elected officials and the rest of us are actually willing to do this time around remains to be seen.

Thad Curtz has been volunteering for local climate groups since retiring from the Evergreen faculty. His website about resources for acting on our climate mitigation plan is at Climate Action Toolbox.

(1) According to the consultants’ report, “Sequestration is not technically a strategy metric in the Scenario Analysis Tool, but the user dashboard allows input of net sequestration estimates for 2030 and 2050, respectively. We are offering values of 153,000 tCO2e and 380,000 tCO2e for the two years, based on afforestation of 8% of Thurston County’s land area (about 37,000 acres) and conversion of about 30% of Thurston County’s agricultural land from conventional to regenerative agriculture.” p. 290

—Cascadia Consulting Group, Scenario Analysis Report, Thurston Climate Mitigation Plan; data in this section is generally from pages 280-290.

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