Stricter Standards Likely for Clean Air Program’s Second Decade

October 26, 2016
clean air
Areporter/ShutterstockRGGI’s clean air standards could provide a model for the rest of the nation.

The good news: climate-change initiatives are working. The even better news? A 10-year-old program is about to crank things up a notch.

When the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) was announced in 2006 and implemented by 10 states in 2009, it became the first mandatory cap-and-trade program in the United States. Under the program, the participating states set an overall limit on the amount of carbon dioxide that power plants could release (the cap). Plants could then bid on permits to cover their emissions, sell their permits if they came in under the limit, or pay more to emit more (the trade). The plants have a financial incentive to avoid buying additional permits, and over time, the cap is lowered, speeding up reductions in emissions.

The results thus far are encouraging. Since RGGI’s implementation, carbon dioxide emissions have fallen by 37 percent in the participating states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and until 2011, New Jersey. A 2015 study by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions concluded that emissions would have been 24 percent higher without the program’s adoption. And according to the Acadia Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes clean energy production, emissions have declined 16 percent faster in RGGI states than in the rest of the country since the program began.

“RGGI has worked across many levels,” says Georgia Murray, an AMC staff scientist. “We’ve seen declines in emissions, and we’ve seen investments in increased energy efficiency and renewables.”

A number of additional factors have contributed to the reduction in emissions, including the economic recession, other environmental programs, and the lower cost of natural gas. But RGGI comes with the benefit of financial investment: “The money from the auctions is recirculated into further reducing emissions,” says Jordan Stutt of the Acadia Center. “You could think of it as a feedback loop.”

That investment is no small change. States in the RGGI region have raised about $2.5 billion from the allowance auctions to fund energy-efficiency programs and clean-energy development. And a recent report issued by RGGI estimates the investments made with those funds through 2014 will yield $4.67 billion in lifetime savings.

Now it’s time for the next phase: a decision on setting a new cap. Since RGGI’s adoption in 2009, the cap has been lowered only once, in 2014. The new cap, which would go into effect in 2021 and expire in 2030, is currently being discussed by governors of the member states. A host of conservation organizations, including AMC, has called for the next cap to decline annually by five percent. An announcement is expected soon.

The start date and level of the new cap likely will align with the requirements of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions nationwide. RGGI could provide a model for other states as they, too, look to meet the target. The CPP is expected to take effect in 2022, despite being put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.

“The RGGI states have independently established ambitious greenhouse gas targets for 2030 to 2050,” Stutt says. “If we’re serious about achieving those targets—and we should be, because that’s what the scientific community is telling us is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change—we’re going to depend on significant emissions reductions.”


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Dan Eisner

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.