The climate candidate now has a climate plan—or at least the beginnings of one.
On Friday, Governor Jay Inslee of Washington announced a major plank of his climate-focused platform for president: a three-part plan to reshape the U.S. auto market, building code, and power grid over the next decade and a half.
You could call it the 100-100-100 plan. Inslee would require that, by 2030, 100 percent of new cars sold in the United States must be fully electric, 100 percent of U.S. electricity must come from carbon-neutral sources, and 100 percent of newly constructed buildings must emit no greenhouse gases from their kitchens, chimneys, or heating systems.
He would also mandate that, by 2035, 100 percent of U.S. electricity be generated by zero-emissions sources. A carbon-neutral grid requires utilities to remove as much carbon pollution from the atmosphere as power plants emit. (This might mean, for example, planting more trees.) A zero-emissions grid requires utilities to use only power sources that release no greenhouse gases at all, such as wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectric dams, and nuclear plants.
The agenda mirrors many of the policies that Inslee has piloted in Washington. Next week, the governor will sign a bill committing the Evergreen State to a carbon-neutral grid by 2030, and a zero-emissions grid by 2045. It will represent a long-awaited victory for Inslee: After years of trying, and several failed attempts to put a statewide price on carbon pollution, Inslee will succeed in passing an ambitious climate policy in Washington. And he has found this success not by trying to tax carbon pollution, but by going sector by sector, coaxing and prodding individual parts of the economy to change their ways. It is a strategy he now hopes to bring to the White House.
The Inslee campaign considers the bill “the most comprehensive path to 100 percent clean energy,” Jared Leopold, a spokesman, told me. “It sets down real teeth and standards. It’s reflective of what the modern discussion is at the state level.” Inslee has also launched a green-buildings code as governor.
The new plan earned mostly good reviews from a slate of climate-policy experts, who said it built on preexisting state-level policies while pushing a faster timeline. “It is already aligning with a lot of the ambition of the Green New Deal,” says Greg Carlock, a policy researcher at the leftist advocacy group Data for Progress. “They’re picking something ambitious.”
But climate ambition has often flubbed on a federal level. Leah Stokes, a political scientist at UC Santa Barbara, noted that even though Inslee’s policies have found success in Washington State, the same policies have not had the same record in D.C. “There have been many efforts to pass a federal [renewable electricity standard], in the ’90s, and under [the 2009 climate bill] Waxman-Markey, and it’s always resisted by utilities and ultimately defeated.”
She also advised considering the practical challenges of the plan. Carbon-free sources—such as wind, solar, and nuclear—now generate 37 percent of U.S. grid electricity. Under the Inslee plan, they must take over the last 63 percent of the grid over the next 16 years, Stokes said.
To meet that target, clean energy must add about four percentage points every year between now and 2035. This would be unprecedented: Even over the past few years of record-setting expansion for renewables, clean energy has grown by only 0.6 percentage points a year.
And that may actually understate the challenge. “It’s not just an eightfold increase—it’s probably closer to a tenfold increase, because if you’re going to electrify everything, you have to grow the grid,” Stokes said. The Inslee plan would add tens of millions of new electric cars to the road, all of which would need to draw their energy from the power grid. A literature review last year found that U.S. electricity use could more than double by 2050.
The plan sets a similarly ambitious target for zero-emissions vehicles, mandating that all newly sold light- and medium-duty cars and trucks have fully electric drivetrains by 2030. Of the 17 million new cars and light trucks sold in the United States in 2018, about 300,000—or 2 percent—were plug-in electric vehicles. (Meanwhile, more than 1 million electric cars were sold in China last year.)
Inslee also wants the government to undertake a “Clean Cars for Clunkers” program, allowing Americans to trade in their old gas-burning vehicles for a discount. And he would provide incentives for cities, states, and utilities to build new electric-charging stations.
Programs such as these are crucial to making sure Americans, especially in rural areas, will not be disadvantaged by a climate transition, Carlock said. It’s unlikely that the kind of transit-oriented approaches that work best in cities—such as fully electric buses or expanded subway systems—would work at scale in the country’s most spread-out areas. “Kind of like with rural electrification or rural broadband, you need to do rural charging. You’re never going to bring a lot of public transport out there,” he said.
Finally, the Inslee plan requires all new buildings constructed after 2030 to emit no greenhouse gases. This would effectively phase out gas stoves, gas ovens, and heating systems that burn oil or gas. Buildings pose an often-forgotten climate problem for the United States: In 2018, emissions from buildings leaped by 10 percent, driving a national surge in carbon pollution.
The Inslee campaign demonstrates the challenge of fighting climate change—economists and policy designers have devised climate policy for 30 years, but it has never been massively implemented in the United States. “Maybe this Inslee plan is doable with a huge government investment, like a war effort,” Stokes later told me by email. “I suppose if the U.S. government sticks its mind to the task, it could get a long way to meeting these ambitious timelines.”