This November in Washington State, climate change is on the ballot. If it passes, Initiative 1631 would create the first carbon emissions fees in the U.S. and potentially kickstart a national movement to staunch greenhouse gases.
The initiative would require companies to pay for their carbon dioxide emissions, providing Washington with as much as $1 billion annually by 2023 to fund government programs related to climate change. And it would be an example of how to put a price on carbon, considered to be a central issue in efforts to slow global warming.
“This is new ground for everybody,” John Larsen, a director at the Rhodium Group, told TIME. “If Washington gets this in place, it’s going to provide a different picture of what’s possible.”
The debate has already set a record for campaign fundraising for an initiative in Washington. The Clean Air Clean Energy coalition to say “yes” on I-1631 has raised nearly $14.8 million, including $1 million each from Bill Gates and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Big oil companies in the Western States Petroleum Association—including Koch Industries—have given $26.2 million, the Washington Post reports.
Initiative 1631 was developed by a coalition of environmental, labor, tribal and social-justice groups, the Seattle Times reports, and would have a board made up of state officials and members of the public to determine how the money is invested. The carbon charges are considered fees rather than taxes to prevent the state legislature from diverting the earnings to other projects. Money raised by the carbon fee could be used for helping people buy electric cars, thinning fire-prone forests, building new solar and wind farms, and climate education programs.
After starting in at $15 per ton of carbon created, the fee would increase $2/ton a year until 2035. Environmentalists say that’s still too cheap; oil companies say tackling climate change at the state level isn’t going to do anything but raise gasoline prices by about 14 cents a gallon.
California’s Legislature passed a cap-and-trade system in 2013 that puts a price on carbon emissions. But if I-1631 passes on Nov. 6 , Washington would be the first state to approve carbon pricing through an election. A similar initiative was introduced in 2016 but didn’t pass; it was revenue neutral.
British Columbia has had a carbon tax for more than a decade, at a higher rate than the one proposed by I-1631, the Seattle Times says. Price increases for consumers and business did not stop the tax from being popular, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is considering a similar tax nationwide.