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Jay Inslee, Running as a Climate Candidate, Wants Coal Gone in 10 Years

Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington has centered his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on a single issue, climate change. On Friday, he unveiled his first major climate policy proposal, calling for all coal-fired power plants to be closed in a decade.

Mr. Inslee, who has also made climate change his signature issue as governor, issued a plan that aims to eliminate planet-warming emissions from power plants, vehicles and buildings over 10 years. Under the plan:

• The country’s power plants would have to be “carbon-neutral” by 2030, meaning any carbon emissions would have to be offset through other efforts, though the plan does not specify how. By 2035, all power production would need to be emissions-free, through renewable energy.

• New passenger cars, medium-duty trucks and buses would have to be emissions-free by 2030 — in other words, new vehicles would have to be electric.

• New commercial and residential buildings would be required to meet a “Zero-Carbon Building Standard” by 2030, improving efficiency and eschewing natural gas heating and appliances, for example.

Mr. Inslee’s campaign said its proposal, the “100 Percent Clean Energy for America Plan,” aims to put the United States on track to cut its planet-warming pollution 50 percent by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2045 — roughly in line with two of the goals the United Nations’ climate panel has said the world needs to reach.

“This is a special moment, this is a special mission, and we are in a special nation that has never, never fallen back from a challenge,” Mr. Inslee said at a news conference Friday morning at a bus depot in Los Angeles. “My plan is a big, bold, ambitious plan because this is a big, bold and ambitious nation, and we are up to the job.”

[We asked the 2020 Democrats about climate change. Here are their ideas.]

Mr. Inslee is familiar with the divide between the policies that climate experts say are needed and those that, practically speaking, can pass legislatively. Though his campaign boasts about having passed a clean energy bill in Washington, which he plans to sign into law next week, Mr. Inslee failed to get the state legislature to vote on a carbon tax last year, and the state’s voters have twice rejected similar proposals.

Those defeats may help explain why two prongs of Mr. Inslee’s plan focus on setting standards for new cars and buildings rather than forcing change or early retirement on things that already exist.

Mr. Inslee’s plan does not chart a forgiving path for coal, however: It calls for retiring what it labels as the “increasingly uneconomical U.S. coal fleet” by 2030. The suggestion puts him in direct contrast with President Trump, who has strenuously promoted coal by seeking to lift an Obama-era moratorium on coal mining on public lands and relax pollution regulations on coal-fired power plants.

Mr. Inslee’s plan for eliminating coal, campaign aides said, would rely on reviving some of former President Barack Obama’s restrictions on power plants and enacting new regulations. Similarly, they said, setting 100 percent clean energy standards in the vehicle and building sectors would be done through executive orders.

But they acknowledged that a fully clean electricity standard would need the support of Congress, an unlikely prospect so long as Republicans retain control of at least one chamber.

Mr. Inslee’s eight-page plan also promises investment in renewable energy, more energy-efficient buildings and other advances, but does not come with a price tag. It frames expenses in terms of the “cost of inaction,” noting that climate change will cost the American economy billions of dollars in coming years.

Much like the Green New Deal, a sweeping climate proposal put forth by some Democrats in Congress, Mr. Inslee’s plan emphasizes the potential for millions of new jobs and pledges support for workers and communities affected by an energy transition.

But Mandy Gunasekara, a former policy adviser at the Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump administration, called Mr. Inslee’s proposal “unrealistic” and criticized the plan to retire the American coal fleet.

“I’m not sure what Inslee’s plan would actually achieve other than bankrupting the economy and putting hardworking coal miners out of work,” she said.

Mr. Inslee delivered his climate proposal four days after another contender for the Democratic nomination, former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, released a $5 trillion plan to combat climate change. Other candidates have outlined policies with climate elements, like Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to prohibit new leases for fossil-fuel drilling on public lands.

The governor has said he wants to make climate change a top issue in the campaign, but he is lagging well behind his leading rivals in recent polls.

According to the E.P.A., the three sectors addressed in Mr. Inslee’s plan represent nearly 70 percent of United States emissions. Emissions from industry account for another 22 percent.

Jesse Jenkins, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment, said the beginnings of Mr. Inslee’s plan were good but he noted it did not yet address some key areas.

“What the plan leaves out is industry, where emissions primarily come from chemicals and refiners, cement and steel,” Mr. Jenkins said. He added that the plan currently lacked targets for emissions from existing buildings as well as long-distance transportation like rail and airlines.

In a statement on Friday, Mr. Inslee’s team said he would announce additional policies in the coming weeks that would build out other aspects of his plan to fight climate change. They include strategies to slash climate pollution from the transportation sector and from existing buildings, and ways to support clean manufacturing and sustainable agriculture.

“The specifics matter,” said Jigar Shah, a solar power entrepreneur and author. He noted that a number of the elements of Mr. Inslee’s plan come from the governor’s experiences in Washington State. Mr. Inslee’s call to retire the nation’s coal fleet by 2030, for example, draws from his negotiations with his state’s utilities to start a ban on coal power in 2025.

“The vast majority of politicians don’t have primary knowledge about what’s possible,” Mr. Shah said. He praised Mr. Inslee’s targets, which he said drew from real-world experience and were “not just random dates.”