Climate Protection: Washington State’s cap-and-invest program

Nick Maxwell

Introducing Climate Protection, a new monthly column from Nick Maxwell

Washington State has begun something pretty huge for climate change — a “cap-and-invest” program. From 2023 on, most businesses that release more than 25,000 tons of global-warming air pollution each year have to buy an allowance for each ton they produce.

The tons are measured in terms of “carbon dioxide equivalents.” Those are the amounts of released carbon dioxide that would create the same global warming as whatever is being produced. For example, releasing 1 ton of methane (natural gas) will heat the planet over the next 100 years as much as 28 tons of carbon dioxide.  So we say that 1 ton of methane counts as 25 tons of global-warming pollution.

This year, it is possible for Washington businesses to buy enough in allowances to continue releasing the same pollution as last year. Over the next 27 years, the total amount of allowances will be reduced 95%. This is kind of like how a group of people might subdue a wild animal. You start with a wide circle, allowing the animal to move around as much as it wants to. Then you gradually bring the circle in, reducing the animal’s movements more and more until they are fully restrained. In this case, once the process is over in 2050, the companies will be fully restrained to release no more than 5% of the pollution they are producing now.

Washington is the second state in the U.S. to run a pollution cap program.  California has one too. Globally, there are over 70 cap-and-trade programs. The European Union has been running one for almost 20 years. The EU has continued its cap-and-trade program for decades because it appears to work.

Why are these incentives effective? The answer is that businesses know ways to reduce their global-warming pollution. Businesses know where they are heating with natural gas and driving trucks on gasoline. They know that heat pumps are available for office heating and hot water, and that insulation will provide additional savings.

Business people generally want to stop their pollution. But at the same time, there is this “that’s how we’ve always done it” thing. As long as releasing global-warming pollution into the air is how businesses have always done things, and as long as no one holds them responsible for that pollution, some businesses don’t want the distraction of investing in improvements. They have their core business to worry about and anyway, the costs of global-warming pollution are handled by other people: The folks whose towns burn down in California, the folks who get caught in flash flooding in Kentucky valleys, and everyone who breathes wildfire smoke in Washington state.

So while many businesses know how to reduce their global-warming pollution, they do not get around to it right away. Programs like Washington State’s cap-and-invest program hold businesses responsible for their pollution. It then becomes a no- brainer to take those pollution-reducing steps.

— By Nick Maxwell
Edmonds resident Nick Maxwell is a data scientist and founder of Climate Protection Northwest. He is a Rewiring America local leader and a trained Climate Reality educator. Nick also serves on the Edmonds Planning Board. He frequently can be found walking on the waterfront or in downtown Edmonds. Reach out to Nick at


  1. Greetings, thank you for your thoughts on the cap and trade program, and glad to meet you recently on a zoom call. We’re in the neighborhood, and look forward to following your work.

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