I was on television the other night talking about the impact of sea level rise and storms on Boston and how the impacts of global warming mean that coastal cities like Boston face very real threats. During that interview, I found myself comparing the process of adapting to a changed climate to finding out the house is on fire and grabbing the cat and the kids and getting out – steps that should be followed by calling the Fire Department in order to save the rest of the house and neighborhood.
The climate equivalent of calling the Fire Department is reducing carbon emissions to head off even worse global warming and the wide gamut of effects that we are feeling and will feel from that phenomenon. On the national level, our problem is that Congress is not sure what kind of Fire Department we should have – and in fact a powerful contingent of folks in Congress refuse to believe in the existence of fire.
But here in the upper right hand corner of the U.S., the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, our state governments have been rolling the big red truck out of the garage and taking action to address the greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, a key source of this pollution causing global warming, by capping carbon emissions through the program known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (“RGGI”).
Today, February 7, those states (including the New England states of Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut) announced an agreement to strengthen that cap on carbon from 165 million tons down to 91 million tons (2012 levels).
This step, along with associated refinements to the RGGI program, is an important step toward meeting the climate imperative of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but we temper our applause by clearly noting that more sweeping action will be needed to get there. Listen to the wise words of Jonathan Peress, my colleague and our lead advocate on RGGI from our official release marking this announcement:
“This is a very meaningful step in the evolution of RGGI and a powerful example of how markets can drive solutions to climate change,” said N. Jonathan Peress, VP and director of CLF’s Clean Energy and Climate Change program. “Over the past four years, the RGGI program has proven that putting a price on carbon emissions and using the revenues to expand energy efficiency and clean energy as part of our mix is a formula that works. The program refinements announced today will further accelerate the ongoing transition away from dirty and inefficient fossil fuel power plants to meet our energy needs. Once again, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states have demonstrated a path forward for others areas of the country.”
RGGI, the nation’s first market-based cap and trade program requires power plants to hold permits, known as “allowances,” for each ton of CO2 they release into the atmosphere. Revenue from the sale of these allowances is reinvested in energy efficiency programs that reduce costs for businesses and make the states more competitive.
Peress continued, “We applaud the New England states for supporting and strengthening RGGI as an important tool in their toolkits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and advancing a clean energy economy. The RGGI program has proven that carbon cap-and-trade programs can reduce carbon pollution while contributing to economic growth and prosperity. However, state leaders still have much to do to meet the emissions reductions levels dictated by science and our understanding of what it will take for our region to thrive in the face of climate change. Today’s action to strengthen the regional electric power plant cap-and-trade program is a step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go.”
The new cap level locks in emission reductions achieved to date, and continues to drive additional reductions through 2020. Since it was launched in 2009, economic experts say the increased energy efficiency that RGGI is driving has been generating greater rates of economic growth in each participating state.
When we began the RGGI adventure, we knew that while action would be necessary on the national and global level, the states and regions were the best forum to really take action immediately and effectively. That strategy has paid off in many ways, including the pivotal Supreme Court case brought by Massachusetts and allied states, with support from a host of environmental groups including CLF, that continues to propel forward action by EPA. Now, this decision by the states to turn RGGI up a notch in order to protect the climate and build clean energy and efficiency tells us that this is still the path to travel.