Earlier this year, Governor Gregoire set an ambitious goal (pdf link) for Washington state: reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 10 million tons by 2020. That would put the state’s emissions back to about where they were in 1990—roughly an 11 percent decline, all told, from today’s levels.

Of course, that’s only a start. Real climate leadership will require reductions on the order of 80 to 90 percent by the middle of this century. Still, a 10 million ton reduction in annual CO2 emissions seems like a tall order — especially since the US Census Bureau projects that the state’s population will grow by 20 percent between now and 2020. Measured per person, Washingtonians’ greenhouse emissions will have to fall by about one quarter by 2020 to meet the goal.

The Washington Department of Ecology recently asked us what it would take to meet that 10 million ton goal. Based on emissions data compiled by the state (pdf link), here’s what we came up with:

  • Closing Washington’s sole coal-fired power plant, in Centralia Washington—and replacing the lost electricity by ramping up efficiency, conservation, and new renewable power—would reduce emissions by just over 10 million tons per year. (Of course, all other emissions in the state would have to remain flat—which, allowing for population growth, would still mean a 17 percent per-capita reduction outside the electricity sector.)

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    • More generally, reducing all electricity generation emissions by 55 percent would eliminate 10 million tons of CO2 emissions per year. Reducing total electricity consumption by 17 percent in absolute terms, or 31 percent per person by 2020, would also do the trick. (Note: for the average US home, 31 percent of electricity represents all of the power currently consumed by refrigerators, lights, and home electronics combined.)
    • Reducing car and truck emissions by 42 percent — either by removing two-fifths of all cars and trucks from the road; by improving average fuel economy from about 21 mpg to 36.2 mpg; or through a combination of fewer cars, fewer miles driven, improved fuel economy, and lower-carbon fuels—would also reduce emissions by 10 million tons per year.

    There are other ways of getting to the 2020 goal, but you get the gist. These aren’t baby steps. They’re difficult, and they’re going to take hard work—starting now.

    But there a few valuable lessons to be found in these numbers. First, the easiest first step to reducing the climate-warming emissions in the states may be to wring coal out of our electricity portfolio. Luckily, there are cost-effective alternatives. Conservation and efficiency are already pretty cheap—sometimes even free! And renewable power—especially wind—is often cost-competitive with fossil generation, at least where the wind blows strong. If I had to make a bet, I’d guess that once a firm cap on climate-warming emissions is in place, the market will find plenty of cheap emissions reductions by moving away from coal-fired power.

    Second, if you think about any sector in isolation, reaching the 10 million ton goal seems really, really difficult. Switching all coal-fired power to renewables is a fairly big deal; reducing vehicle emissions by 42 percent is a very big deal. When you look at things one sector at a time, the task of reducing emissions seems positively daunting. However, when you look across many sectors at once, the reductions seem more manageable. Dozens or even hundreds of modest changes—from vehicle and appliance standards, to new renewable generation, to significant-but-doable reductions in vehicle travel, to cost effective reductions in industrial and agricultural emissions—they all add up, and none seems impossible.

    The point, though, is that they aren’t going to get done by themselves. To get us started down that path—to get all sectors of the economy to take the small, incremental steps that are necessary to meet Washington’s goal—we’re going to need one major shift in policy: we have to stop treating the atmosphere as a free dumping ground. Starting very soon, we’re going to have to put a price on carbon emissions: climate-disrupting pollution will have to bear a cost. Once that fundamental shift is in place, the little reductions will start to take care of themselves.