By Nikita Naik
California’s cap-and-trade program isn’t just in the business of trading emissions. The pay-to-pollute scheme also swaps environmental justice for pollution, a raw deal that hurts already over-burdened lower-income communities and people of color so that corporate polluters can fatten their bottom lines.
Cap-and-trade programs allegedly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by allowing polluters to buy and sell pollution “credits” based on an industry-wide limit, or “cap” on total allowable pollution. But the facilities that buy the right to increase pollution tend to be in socially and economically disadvantaged areas. Food & Water Watch has long argued that these unbalanced transactions are a natural side effect of implementing ineffective market-based policies that put industry profits ahead of public health and the environment.
Now a new study provides concrete evidence of these inequities in California’s cap-and-trade program. While statewide greenhouse gas emissions remain below the overall cap, more than half of the facilities involved actually increased their greenhouse gas emissions since the program began in 2013. The most toxic industries took the biggest advantage of the pollution free-for-all. The vast majority of cement plants, power plants and oil and gas producers have increased their local greenhouse gas emissions.
The study found these facilities were predominantly located in communities of color and low-income areas, exposing nearby residents to increased emissions from health-threatening pollutants like particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, and sulfur and nitrogen oxides.
Historically, these vulnerable communities have faced higher exposures to harmful pollutants than the rest of the population due to the disproportionate siting of toxic facilities in their neighborhoods. Cap-and-trade exacerbates these disparities, as companies that buy credits and increase pollution — and simultaneously reap profits by avoiding any pollution control costs — tend to be in communities of color and lower-income areas, only adding to existing environmental burdens.
Attempts to remedy cap-and-trade’s inherent environmental injustices have been ineffective. Theoretically, California’s program addresses these disparities by directing half the revenue generated from selling pollution credits to disadvantaged communities and low-income households. But little of the promised compensation even gets to the targeted areas, according to a recent study from the University of California, Irvine. This means that the very communities that are experiencing the worst environmental and health burdens are also getting shortchanged on promised compensation.
Moreover, market-based schemes like pollution trading and carbon taxes are shown to be ineffective at reducing emissions, especially in comparison to mandated emissions reductions found under highly effective regulations like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
The longer these ineffective pollution trading plans operate, the more evidence mounts that market-based schemes disproportionately harm vulnerable populations. California must reject cap-and-trade and restore and strengthen time-tested pollution controls with a focus on reducing pollution in environmental justice communities.