By Jim Walsh
Climate warning bells are going off all over the globe, and a rising youth-led movement is pushing governments to take bold action to stave off catastrophe.
When it comes to climate change, that’s the ‘good news.’ But doing something is not the same thing as taking action that will have real impact.
Unfortunately, Gov. Tom Wolf is pursuing a meaningless policy when it comes to dealing with climate change.
When the governor announced his intent to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the news was cheered as a big step in the right direction, especially for a state that is one of the leading greenhouse gas polluters. But RGGI and other carbon trading programs are ineffective market schemes that do not actually reduce planet-warming emissions.
That might sound confusing, given the hoopla around the supposed success of RGGI. But the real story is pretty straight forward. Under a cap-and-trade program, a state sets a pollution limit (the cap part), and industries reduce emissions to stay under that cap, or buy credits allowing them to exceed it (the trading part).
RGGI only applies to large power plants, and it does not address other sources of emissions, like the methane emissions associated with fracking and pipelines.
A huge part of the problem with RGGI is that the pollution cap was set much higher than actual emissions—so power plants were not forced by the market to change anything.
States participating in RGGI boast about reductions in carbon emissions, but what’s happened is that older, coal-fired plants have closed, and new fracked gas plants have opened. This was happening anyway, due to favorable prices for gas. RGGI backers who point to a reduction in carbon emissions are being willfully blind to the huge amount of methane emissions associated with fracking. If RGGI’s greatest achievement is swapping one fossil fuel for another, the program is hardly cause for celebration.
There are other problems with cap and trade.
In California, over half of the facilities covered by the state’s program actually saw an increase in emissions, leading to pollution ‘hotspots’ in environmental justice communities and increased health problems in areas already overburdened with pollution. For big polluters, shifting emissions to certain places was easier than actually reducing them.
The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report shows that we have a little over a decade to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions or face catastrophic changes in our climate.
A modest, market-based trading scheme is no match for the challenges we face in Pennsylvania, and everywhere else. Meanwhile, other legislative proposals also propose to take us in the wrong direction. Republicans are pushing an “Energize” package that includes massive tax breaks for the construction of new petrochemical facilities to turn fracked gas into plastics.
There are better options for Pennsylvania.
The state’s renewable energy programs are in desperate need of improvement; if Wolf was to get behind efforts to put the state on the path to achieving 100 percent clean renewable energy, it would save money, reduce pollution, and create thousands of new jobs.
Wolf should also cut off pollution at the source by banning fracking in Pennsylvania, joining governors in Maryland and New York who have put public health and clean water ahead of fossil fuel industry profits.
There is no time left to experiment with market-based schemes that fail to deliver on their promises. Joining the RGGI program is not showing leadership in the fight against climate change—it is exactly the opposite.
Jim Walsh is an Energy Policy Analyst at Food & Water Watch and Food & Water Action, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group.