By Valerie Strauss
New Yorkers had two special reasons to tune in to President Obama’s call, in his second inaugural address, to heed the dangers of climate change and work together to reduce them.
Just three months ago, more than 100 people were killed and tens of thousands left homeless in coastal New York and New Jersey due to Superstorm Sandy – the kind of extreme weather event that scientists warn is more likely if we continue to spew greenhouse gas emissions into our atmosphere.
At the same time, however, New Yorkers can take pride that our state has joined the fight to make our region and our planet safer – in part by participating in the pioneering Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the pact by nine Northeast and mid-Atlantic states to reduce the pollution that causes climate change.
RGGI is the nation’s first “cap-and-trade” system to cut greenhouse gases from power plants. It sets a cap, or limit, on carbon dioxide emissions, and power plants must have an allowance for each ton they emit. The allowances are bought at periodic auctions, with much of that money then used directly for energy efficiency or other clean energy programs.
In just the past four years, RGGI has added $326 million to our state’s gross domestic product, while creating more than 4,600 new jobs, according to research by the Analysis Group. It has also helped reduce New Yorkers’ energy bills by $200 million. These are all formidable benefits – but now RGGI can and must go further.
In the next few days, the pact’s commissioners plan to decide whether to tighten the regional cap on greenhouse gases. For the sake of both our environment and our economy, the choice should be clear.
The original cap of 165 million tons per year has become meaningless because it’s far in excess of our current emission levels, now estimated at 91 million tons. Resetting the cap to that 91-million-ton level would ensure that even as our economies grow, we keep a strict lid on greenhouse gas pollution. Researchers estimate this would also provide $3.9 billion for the region to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy programs through 2020. That translates to more green-collar jobs, more cost savings for consumers and a cleaner, safer environment.
In his State-of-the-State address earlier this month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pledged his support for strengthening RGGI by lowering the current cap to a level that assures emissions are reduced below current levels. We hope others will follow his lead. That would be good for New York, the Northeast and the nation.
Valerie Strauss is the interim executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York.