Nine Northeastern states delivered a boost to U.S. climate efforts yesterday.
The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) announced a proposal to cut power plant emissions 30 percent between 2021 and 2030.
The plan puts the regional cap-and-trade program's members on pace to greatly exceed the emissions targets prescribed under former President Obama's carbon-cutting strategy, the Clean Power Plan. It also comes amid a rollback of climate initiatives under President Trump and a flurry of state pledges to comply with goals of the Paris climate accord.
“Really, one of the reasons we've been able to reach this consensus is that when it comes to cutting carbon, we can achieve more when we work together,” said Katie Dykes, who leads the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority and RGGI's board of directors.
Yesterday's announcement was notable in both symbolism and substance. It is the culmination of a 21-month review that witnessed deep political divisions over how much carbon the states should cut when annual reductions in RGGI's cap cease in 2020. Five RGGI states are led by Republicans; four are run by Democrats.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Maine Gov. Paul LePage, both Republicans, separately expressed skepticism about the program, while the governors of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island sought larger cuts intended to comply with their plans to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050.
Ultimately, all nine states overcame their differences and agreed to set a carbon cap of roughly 75 million tons in 2021. That cap will then fall by 3 percent annually through 2030. By then, the region's carbon cap will have fallen 65 percent since it was first implemented in 2009. Each state will need to officially approve the changes before they go into effect. The Clean Power Plan, by contrast, required emissions to be reduced 32 percent of 2005 levels by 2030.
On an operational front, RGGI has long faced challenges born from its success. Emissions reductions have consistently come in below the program's cap. That has produced a surplus of carbon allowances. Greens have long worried that power plant owners could hoard the excess credits, ultimately weakening the program's effectiveness.
The plan outlined yesterday is largely designed to correct that dynamic. A one-time carbon cut of about 750,000 tons will be made in 2021. The number of allowances that power plant owners are allowed to bank will be reduced. And perhaps most significantly, the plan will establish a so-called emissions containment reserve (ECR).
The ECR essentially limits the number of carbon allowances available if emission credits cost less than initially projected. Under the plan, 10 percent of allowances would be held back if the price on carbon credits falls below $6 per ton starting in 2021. The ECR trigger price will increase by 7 percent annually thereafter. New Hampshire and Maine will not participate in the ECR program.
“I think it's hugely significant because an ECR is a mechanism that has never been implemented in a carbon market I am aware of,” said Anthony Paul, a fellow at Resources for the Future. “The allowance prices have been very low, often even on the price floor. What that represents is that compliance costs have been lower than expected. And low compliance costs bring benefits to the economy for utilities and ratepayers, but no environmental benefits.”
“What the ECR does,” he added, “is share the cost of low-cost compliance between the environment and the economy.”
RGGI's announcement represents a win for environmentalists, many of whom had cast the negotiations as a test of states' will to follow through on their climate pledges. The cap-and-trade program had considered three basic scenarios: an annual cap reduction of 2.5 percent, 3 percent and 3.5 percent.
Because of the one-time cut in the cap and other adjustments in carbon allowances, the 3 percent scenario was considered the most stringent.
Environmentalists hailed the decision to seek a more ambitious carbon target.
“If you add it up, the RGGI states are the sixth-largest economy in the world. This is a significant development,” said Peter Shattuck, who directs the clean energy initiative at the Boston-based Acadia Center. “It shows states picking up on climate action in the wake of the Paris withdrawal.”
Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called RGGI's plan “bold” and said, “Within the past month, California and the RGGI states have shown the world there are still climate leaders here in the U.S. Now we need other state, city and federal officials to follow suit.”
RGGI's decision had emerged as a particularly significant test for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat and potential 2020 presidential contender who has rushed to position New York at the forefront of state efforts to slash carbon emissions. Cuomo founded the U.S. Climate Alliance with California Gov. Jerry Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, both Democrats.
“RGGI's success exemplifies New York's commitment to protecting the people of this state by showing the world that we will cut pollution and improve health, while transforming our economy into one that is cleaner, greener, stronger, and more sustainable than ever before,” Cuomo said in a statement.
The reaction in other corners was muted. The Environmental Energy Alliance of New York, a trade group representing power generators and utilities that had pushed for a less stringent cap, could not be reached for comment.
New Hampshire and Maine were the only RGGI members not to contribute to the organization's official statement. Sununu campaigned last year on the idea of withdrawing from the organization. A New Hampshire official could not be reached for comment. Maine officials, who had previously argued for a less stringent cap, also could not be reached.
A RGGI spokeswoman said all nine members had reached a consensus, but some had chosen not to comment.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.