Never before has the urgency of climate action been so apparent, demonstrated by record high temperatures and unprecedented drought. Yet, as the impacts of climate change become more painfully obvious, jurisdictions from small towns to the world’s largest countries are working towards solutions. Since the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) began in the Northeast, the Governors of the participating states have led by embracing, implementing, and improving a first-in-the-nation carbon reduction program. It is now up to a new group of Governors to determine whether RGGI remains a model for ambitious action on climate.
What does RGGI leadership mean?
Looking out for our climate, our health, our economy
Thanks to RGGI’s track record, the participating states can lead on climate without setting back their economies. As detailed in our recent report, since RGGI began CO2 emissions have fallen sharply (faster than the rest of the country), electricity prices have decreased (while the rest of the country has seen an increase), and the economy has grown (outpacing the rest of the country).
By setting ambitious cap levels for the future, the RGGI states can continue to achieve the best outcomes for our climate, our health, and our economy. Specifically, the RGGI states should establish post-2020 cap levels designed to meet existing climate targets, which cluster around 40% reductions by 2030. Analysis from Synapse Energy Economics has shown that implementing a RGGI cap with a 5% annual decline from 2020 through 2030 would be the lowest-cost pathway to achieving climate requirements. According to that study, such a cap would also yield over $25 billion in total savings for the region while creating 58,000 new jobs each year in the participating states.
A forward-going 5% annual reduction would be more gradual than what the RGGI states have achieved to date, but it would still put us on a path to achieving our science-based goals. And as we cope with the fact that global CO2 concentrations have now eclipsed 400 parts per million, it’s become more important than ever that our leaders address scientific imperatives on climate change with comparably ambitious policy.
The forefront of climate policy
When a bi-partisan group of Governors of the RGGI states first came together to place a limit on CO2 emissions, they staked their claim as national leaders on climate. In the absence of federal climate policy, they were the first states to act on reducing CO2 emissions from the power sector. When they decided to auction allowances rather than give them away for free—as was common practice under previous emissions trading programs—they directed billions of dollars to consumers instead of polluters. This decision is largely responsible for RGGI’s success as a program that reduces harmful emissions and serves as an engine of local and regional economic growth.
While the leadership role of the RGGI states to-date is indisputable, the bar for climate leadership has been raised. Since the RGGI program began, the region, the country, and the world have taken great strides to address carbon emissions. In recent months the U.S. and China, the planet’s largest emitters of CO2, have ratified the Paris Climate Agreement. In the last week, India and the European Union have followed suit, bringing the tally of signatories beyond the threshold of 55 countries and 55% of global GHG emissions necessary to make the agreement binding. Also this week, Canada—America’s largest trading partner—announced nationwide carbon pricing. Provinces can implement their own cap-and-trade programs (as Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba have done), their own carbon tax (like British Columbia), or they can accept the federal carbon tax, beginning at $10/ton in 2018 and rising to $50/ton by 2022.
The RGGI states are no longer going it alone on climate, but they can still be leaders. Committing to a strong future for the program will provide a valuable guidepost as the rest of the country prepares to comply with the Clean Power Plan, and as the rest of the world considers how to reduce emissions without sacrificing growth. Momentum is building, support is growing, and the market is transforming – will the RGGI states continue to lead the way?
Jordan Stutt is Carbon Programs Director, based in the Boston office. Jordan leads Acadia Center’s work to implement and strengthen climate programs that limit pollution and fund investments to advance the clean energy future, with a focus on the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).