The latest scientific reports convey an unprecedented sense of urgency to act on climate change. Last year, the United States Global Change Research Program released the Fourth National Climate Assessment stating that the climate crisis is no longer a future threat but that its impacts are being felt today.
Several studies show the cost of inaction in Pennsylvania is high. For example, tidal portions of the Delaware River will rise to inundate the Philadelphia Airport, and nearby neighborhoods. Agricultural production is expected to see extreme loses in corn (PA’s most important crop) and extreme rainstorms will continue to increase landslides and flooding throughout the Commonwealth.
Fortunately, Governor Tom Wolf took action last month to initiate a rule that can cut Pennsylvania’s carbon pollution in a very cost effective way by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). With complementary investments in clean energy, energy efficiency, economic diversification and transition, the commonwealth has the potential to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, while reducing our greenhouse gases, if we decide to chart that course.
Our commonwealth is a globally significant emitter of the carbon pollution that’s helped fuel the climate crisis. Nationally, we’re ranked in the top four states for emissions related to fracked gas and coal use. We emitted more energy-related carbon pollution in 2015 than 172 of the 194 nations that signed on to the Paris Climate Agreement. We can and must do our part to control this pollution before it is too late, and in the process we can help grow our clean energy economy.
RGGI currently has ten participating states with Virginia expected to join by 2021. RGGI states set limits on carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution from power plants, and those limits decline over time. Generators must pay an allowance for each ton of CO2 emitted. If allowances are auctioned or sold to generators, the proceeds can be reinvested in beneficial ways. Research by the Analysis Group shows that these investments have created over 44,000 job-years in the RGGI region since 2009.
RGGI has been in effect since 2008, and a recent review by the Acadia Center of the program’s first 10 years found that:
- CO2 emissions from RGGI-covered power plants have fallen by 47 percent outpacing the rest of the country by 90 percent, while reductions in other air pollutants from these plants have resulted in over $5.7 billion in health and productivity benefits
- Electricity prices in RGGI states have fallen by 5.7 percent, while prices have increased in the rest of the country by 8.6 percent
- The combined economies of the RGGI states have grown by 47 percent, outpacing growth in the rest of the country by 31 percent
- RGGI states have generated $3.2 billion in allowance auction proceeds, the majority of which have been invested in energy efficiency and renewable energy programs
The nonpartisan research firm Resources for the Future recently modeled what our energy prices and generation mix would look like if Pennsylvania participated in RGGI. They found that significant reductions in carbon pollution will be achieved at little to no cost to Pennsylvania ratepayers, and that if we invest proceeds from RGGI allowances in efficiency, clean energy, and consumer rebates, electric bills will actually decrease.
They also found that RGGI participation would prevent the replacement of new gas generation once our remaining nuclear fleet is retired–something that is predicted to happen in the absence of RGGI. However, without increasing our investments in efficiency, clean energy, and electrification of transportation and buildings, RGGI alone will not be enough to achieve the deep emissions cuts that science demands. Through the program, we’ll see modest reductions in coal generation and modest increases in clean energy by the mid-decade. The policy is necessary, but not sufficient by itself in meeting the challenge posed by the climate crisis.
We also need to be thoughtful about how carbon caps are implemented. As with many social problems, the negative impacts of climate change are and will continue to be disproportionately felt by lower income and marginalized communities, but the solutions should not. Through our participation in RGGI, we need to ensure there are limits preventing facilities from increasing its co-pollutants so environmental justice communities that are already overburdened with pollution see exposure reductions. There should be reinvestment of revenues collected from carbon allowances in clean energy and efficiency projects, with a focus on projects that benefit lower income communities and consumers. Additionally, some of the allowance revenues should be invested in communities where workers will see the decline of fossil fuel extraction in their towns and aid their transition.
We can get this right. Pennsylvania is too big of a contributor to climate change for us to abdicate responsibility. We can still be a top energy-producing state with a thriving economy while acting on climate, and we should start by joining RGGI.=
Tom Schuster is Pennsylvania Senior Campaign Representative for the Sierra Club.
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