Whether it’s manure run-off from factory farms or greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere, industrial activity increasingly contaminates our water and air. We must hold polluters accountable if there is any hope of addressing the major threats to our environment and drinking water.
Unfortunately, many in the environmental movement have adopted support for “market-based” schemes like pollution trading (also known as “cap-and-trade”), which essentially give companies a right to pollute, rather than hold them liable for reducing pollution.
What Is Pollution Trading?
Pollution trading is a form of privatization that undermines key democratic principals around how our common resources have been governed for centuries, for the common good.
Pollution trading introduces market-based principles to pollution control—an activity that has been achieved historically through protective regulatory oversight of pollutant sources under federal laws like the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Pollution trading, in contrast, allows polluters—like factory farms or power plants—to buy and sell from one another the right to pollute our air and water.
Under our current laws, polluting is a crime. Under pollution trading, polluting becomes allowable—if you are a corporation with deep enough pockets to purchase the right to pollute.
Buying The Right To Pollute
Theoretically, under a pollution trading scheme, a “cap” is placed on overall pollution loads into our air and waterways. Polluters who don’t want to spend money or effort controlling their own discharges to meet their own share of this cap can instead acquire credits from other polluters who claim to have reduced their contributions. This approach means that our current system of holding each polluter accountable for his actions is being scuttled for a convoluted and fraud-friendly system of credit swapping and market manipulation.
In addition to seeking out questionable credits from others who may or may not have actually reduced their own pollutant loads, polluters who don’t want to control their discharges can look to “offset” their own contributions by paying someone somewhere to implement pollution-reduction practices. For example, a coal-fired power plant may not want to spend the money to curb its own greenhouse gas emissions, so instead it might fund a forestation project on the other side of the country to act as a “carbon sink” and absorb carbon.
The Problem With Offsets
As is often the case with pollution credits, verifying offsets is nearly impossible. As a result, many offsets may not represent an actual reduction in pollution loads, but are still used as a way for polluters to avoid cleaning up their own mess.
The use of faulty offsets over direct control of emissions means the chance of net reductions actually happening is low. Moreover, communities close to those companies that continue polluting at the source still face serious health and environmental impacts.
Cap-and-trade systems essentially create a commodity out of pollution, through credits and offsets, that allow for financial corporations to profit from polluting industries.
Water Pollution Trading Is Illegal Under The Clean Water Act
The Clean Water Act, and other air and water laws, are based on the notion that it is illegal to pollute, with stringent rules to stop pollution from entering the environment. Pollution trading, on the other hand, turns on its head the notion that pollution is illegal and assumes that industries have a right to poison our air and water.
Our legal arm, Food & Water Justice, is fighting to preserve our environmental laws and keep the marketplace out of pollution control. They are raising challenges to water pollution trading in several states and ultimately seek a ruling in the courts that water pollution trading is illegal under the Clean Water Act. Learn more about Food & Water Justice.