Opinion: Adding climate change to the Growth Management Act adds cost but won’t help the environment

Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center points out that Washington already has a very strict climate law and legislators should focus elsewhere to help Washington’s environment.

Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center points out that Washington already has a very strict climate law and legislators should focus elsewhere to help Washington’s environment

Todd Myers
Washington Policy Center

Is the key to making Washington a climate friendly state adding a fifteenth, non-prioritized goal to growth management? Some seem to think so.

Todd Myers
Todd Myers

House Bill 1181 would require cities to consider “climate change and residency” in their growth management plans. Among the requirements would be to “reduce per capita vehicle miles traveled within the jurisdiction, but without increasing greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere in the state.” Advocates claim these new requirements are critical to reducing Washington’s CO2 emissions.

One of the main advocates of the requirements is the Mayor of Bothell, Mason Thompson. When I asked him why adding a fifteenth goal was critical to reducing CO2 emissions, he responded that “Bothell is less than 1 percent of the state. What happens around Bothell matters to us a lot because we live in a society Todd. When our neighbors adopt housing regulation that impedes the ability of the free market to meet our basic needs, that’s bad for all of us.”

At its core, this is a strong and coherent argument. Sometimes a statewide law can be better than many, ad hoc, and inconsistent local rules. There are, however, several problems with this argument when it applies to the Growth Management Act (GMA) and climate change.

First, the argument that adding a fifteenth policy goal to the GMA would help “the free market to meet our basic needs” is backwards. It would, in all likelihood, make it more difficult for the market to respond and build what people want. Instead, it would prescribe what was allowed and what was not, whether people preferred that or not. This isn’t about adding choice. It is about restricting it.

Second, nobody believes the GMA has been successful at meeting the first 14 goals. The notion that adding a 15th goal, which isn’t prioritized over the others, will suddenly make it successful is a strange assumption.

Third, Washington state has (for better or worse) a statewide CO2 cap. Although there are many problems with the cap, one benefit is that it is designed to replace many ad hoc and wasteful state and local climate policies. At least that was the hope. Instead, local and state politicians continue to add climate policies that don’t increase total CO2 emissions beyond the existing cap. They simply prescribe how those exact same goals must be met in more expensive ways. With or without this change to GMA, Washington is still required to meet the CO2 cap. Despite the claim this new requirement would reduce CO2, it just duplicates what already exists, but at higher cost.

Fourth, even if changes to the GMA could reduce CO2 emissions, the particular way the bill proposes is ineffective. The bill calls for plans to “reduce per capita vehicle miles traveled.” It must do so in a way that doesn’t simply shift those miles to other parts of the state. This goal is not only meaningless, it is virtually impossible to calculate and even harder to enforce.

The assumption is that if people travel fewer miles they will emit less CO2. However, we have several laws already in place designed to decouple miles traveled from CO2 emissions – the CO2 cap, the low-carbon fuel standard, the ban on new gas-powered vehicle sales in 2035, and several other subsidies for EV vehicles and charging stations. Very soon the number of miles someone travels will no longer be a surrogate for how much CO2 they emit. The theory behind the GMA requirements is directly at odds with several other state laws. What difference does it make how many miles an EV travels? It shouldn’t, and yet it is the main focus of the proposed law.

Just as important is the fact that cities cannot accurately measure their impact on VMT. Are miles traveled where they begin or end? If someone lives in Bothell and works at Google Kirkland, what happens to VMT if they get a job at Microsoft in Redmond? How can GMA planning deal with that? It can’t. The very point Mayor Thompson makes – that Bothell only controls 1 percent of the state – is precisely why pretending that cities can control VMT is absurd.

Put simply, the main metric included in the proposed bill – reduction of VMT – is a useless metric and can’t be effectively measured or influenced.

Fifth, imposing a one-size-fits-all standard will make it more difficult for cities to adapt to their own unique circumstances and meet the needs of their citizens.  Bellevue is very different from Burien and Bothell. Seattle is not Spokane, let alone Pasco. Businesses and residents choose the community that fits their needs and their lifestyle. Amazon is making it clear they prefer Bellevue to Seattle, for example.

As originally enacted the GMA recognized the need for land use plans and regulation to be a bottom-up process that was the responsibility of local planning commissions and city councils. The addition of impractical VMT reduction requirements to GMA makes an already cumbersome set of requirements even more complicated. The changes proposed in HB 1181 would further bog down the local permitting process without actually improving environmental outcomes. Washington already has a very strict climate law and legislators should focus elsewhere to help Washington’s environment.

Todd Myers is the director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center.

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