On Jan. 29, 2018, in the same Atlantic Highlands that Superstorm Sandy ravaged five years before, newly elected New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced that his state would be getting back in the fight against climate change by rejoining the best clean air and climate protection program in the country.
For more than a decade, a group of Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states have worked together on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), taking the most important step in tackling the problem of climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
RGGI launched in 2007 as a partnership of 10 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. The program works by capping the allowable emissions from power plants and ratcheting the caps down each year. Polluters who don’t stay under the caps have to pay to pollute — and that revenue is then invested in clean energy and energy efficiency.
And it’s been a tremendous success. RGGI has helped cut regional power plant pollution in half — the equivalent of retiring 22 coal-fired power plants — and has invested $2.7 billion in clean energy and energy efficiency programs across the region.
Environment America and the PIRGs helped shape RGGI from its inception and have worked to defend and strengthen the program throughout its history. In the late 1990s, U.S. PIRG and the state PIRGs ran campaigns to clean up one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions: power plant pollution. In Massachusetts in 2001, MASSPIRG successfully campaigned for the first-ever state-imposed limits on power plant emissions of mercury and carbon dioxide.
The momentum continued, and in 2003, Gov. George Pataki of New York sent a letter to governors in the region, inviting them to discuss the potential for a regional program to curb global warming pollution. Those discussions ultimately led to the creation of RGGI.
In the early days of the program, Environment America — then newly spun off from U.S. PIRG — helped get the states of Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Hampshire into RGGI. In 2011, Environment Maine and Environment New Hampshire defeated attempts to roll back the RGGI program in those states.
It was also in 2011 that then-Gov. Chris Christie pulled New Jersey out of RGGI. In the years since, Environment New Jersey never stopped working to convince the state to rejoin the initiative. We challenged Gov. Christie’s decision in court and helped persuade state lawmakers to vote to rejoin the program three separate times.
2017 was a big year for RGGI. In March, Frontier Group and Environment America Research & Policy Center released “Doubling Down on Climate Progress,” a report showing the benefits of RGGI over the preceding decade. The report found that in addition to slashing carbon pollution and raising revenue for clean energy investment, the program had improved air quality and saved 600 lives over six years, prevented 9,000 asthma attacks, and averted respiratory illnesses that otherwise would have caused 43,000 lost work days.
“Doubling Down on Climate Progress” also made the case for strengthening the program — and Environment America and our state affiliates advocated for exactly that.
Last August, the nine RGGI states released a proposal to cut power plant pollution by at least an additional 30 percent by 2030. When the new, stronger rules were finalized in December, Environment America applauded the decision and urged the RGGI states to take steps to further slash dangerous global warming pollution and accelerate clean energy development.
In New Jersey, Gov. Christie ignored his constituents’ and Legislature’s calls to return to RGGI. But the state was about to elect a new governor, and in October, Environment New Jersey endorsed Phil Murphy, a candidate who pledged to recommit the state to RGGI. Murphy won the governorship by a 13 percent margin, and, in January 2018, he made good on his promise.
In Virginia, Environment Virginia advocated for the General Assembly to pass a bill that would have enabled the state to maximize the benefits of the RGGI program by ensuring that polluters pay for their emissions and encouraging investments to be directed toward clean energy, energy efficiency and coastal resilience efforts. We’re also working to stop a bill that would undermine Gov. Ralph Northam’s ability to set Virginia up to join the program.
There’s still plenty of work to be done. The stronger RGGI rules finalized in December are a good start, but Environment America continues to campaign to make the program stronger. We are releasing a new report at the end of February, “Cooler Together,” which touts the success of RGGI in cutting carbon pollution, building the clean energy revolution, and saving lives.
New Jersey is back in the fold, and Virginia could be the next state to join, but ultimately, every state and the federal government will need to work together to eliminate pollution.
But thanks to the success of RGGI, we have a great model for what future efforts to cut global warming pollution on a larger scale could look like.