New Jersey’s decision to re-join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) offers a false neoliberal solution to climate change and serves a raw deal to already over-burdened and vulnerable communities. New Jersey has chosen to rely on what is essentially a market-based, pay-to-pollute scheme instead of proven regulations that require polluters to reduce their climate-destroying emissions.
The mythology of RGGI
RGGI is a cap-and-trade program that rests on the myth that market forces can deliver the most effective and efficient solutions to societal problems. Programs like RGGI claim to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by allowing polluters to buy and sell pollution credits based on an industry-wide limit, or “cap,” on total allowable pollution. But there is no evidence that these programs significantly reduce carbon emissions; instead, they give polluters the right to continue – or even increase – polluting.
New Jersey is one of the most vulnerable states to climate change, including severe weather events like Superstorm Sandy and coastal flooding. Participation in RGGI is certainly not the answer.
RGGI’s inherently flawed and harmful approach has not been proven to reduce CO2 emissions and has likely encouraged the shift to natural gas-fired power plants, increasing dependence on gas from hydraulic fracturing (or fracking). While RGGI claims the program brought about a 50 percent reduction in power sector emissions since 2005, much of this is due to the transition to natural gas. Methane leaks from natural gas power plants and infrastructure are not captured under the RGGI program.
Moreover, RGGI enables polluters to simply buy allowances for the right to pollute rather than decrease their emissions, which effectively encourages more pollution in lower-income areas and communities of color, exacerbating underlying environmental justice disparities. Food & Water Watch has long argued that these unbalanced transactions are an inherent symptom of ineffective market-based policies that put industry profits ahead of public health and the environment.
RGGI and environmental injustice
Evidence that cap-and-trade programs hurt vulnerable communities is growing.
In 2018, scientists found that facilities in California’s cap-and-trade program, which were predominantly located in vulnerable neighborhoods, exposed local populations to increased emissions from toxic pollutants like particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, and more. And while statewide greenhouse gas emissions remained below the overall cap, more than half of the facilities involved actually increased their greenhouse gas emissions since the program began in 2013.
Alarmingly, neighborhoods that saw increasing pollution from California’s cap-and-trade facilities had more people of color and economically- and socially-disadvantaged residents compared to areas that saw a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.
Pay-to-pollute is a losing proposition
In another sign of RGGI’s ineffectiveness, the program’s seemingly most attractive feature as a state revenue raiser for clean energy and affordability initiatives has been undermined. States regularly raid these funds to fill coffers and satisfy budget deficits. New Jersey has been the worst offender in this regard. While New Jersey was in RGGI from 2009 to 2011, $65 million, equating to 57 percent of the money raised from the sale of allowances during this period, was redirected to allay the state budget deficit.
New Jersey is not the only state eyeing RGGI. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has signaled his desire to join the program as well. But Pennsylvania will not be immune to the problems outlined here. A Food & Water Watch report found that Pennsylvania’s placement of natural gas power plants is already disproportionately impacting frontline communities. RGGI would only further burden these populations, undoubtedly compounding air pollution for the state’s most vulnerable people.
The best way to reduce climate pollution is to prohibit additional emissions and require an immediate and sustained reduction of greenhouse gases. The Clean Air Act has a proven track record in reducing pollution and protecting human health and the environment. States must reject market-based programs and instead restore and strengthen effective regulatory pollution controls, redouble enforcement efforts, and focus on reducing pollution in environmental justice areas.
A pay-to-pollute scheme doesn’t stop climate change—it only delivers profits to polluters at the expense of climate and health.
Fight like you live here.