Greenhouse gas.” Credit: Gerald Simmons

August 23, 2017; Boston Globe

The Trump administration may think that coal mines will soon be humming, but in New England, coal-fired power plants are relics of the 20th century. The last, large New England coal plant, Brayton Point in Somerset, Massachusetts, shut down in May 2017. A transition to cleaner sources of energy has been spurred by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a carbon emissions cap and trade program that includes all the New England states along with Delaware, Maryland, and New York.

This week, the coalition announced an update of the original agreement, which went into effect in 2009. In the decade spanning 2020–30, the nine states will reduce carbon emissions by 2.3 million tons per year, or an additional 30 percent. By 2030, total power plant emissions will have been reduced 65 percent since the inception of the program.

As NPQ wrote last week, cap and trade is a market-based incentive program, in which total carbon emissions are reduced over time. Power plants buy and trade “allowances” that allow them to exceed their emissions cap, but these allowances become more expensive as the cap is lowered, thereby providing an incentive to reduce emissions. Plants that successfully reduce emissions through implementing new technologies can sell their allowances to the highest bidder. The auctioning of credits has resulted in Massachusetts earning $440 million that has been used to support energy efficiency programs.

Referring to the Trump administration’s policies of climate change denial, Peter Shattuck, director of the Acadia Center in Massachusetts, told the Boston Globe, “This is what climate leadership looks like. Despite the misguided and irresponsible decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement, states and regions continue to lead.”

Having achieved significant reductions in power plants, advocates are urging the RGGI states to focus efforts on reducing emissions from the transportation sector, which now accounts for twice the level of carbon emissions. “Transportation is now the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in this region, and it will take a similarly bold and regional approach to get at the problem,” Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the Globe.

Massachusetts is moving forward in this regard, having recently released new regulations to comply with its 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act. Under that law, the state is required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. New regulations seek to reduce emissions from a variety of sources, including natural gas leaks, power plants, and passenger vehicles, but advocates are concerned they do not go far enough.

“This move shows that [Governor] Baker’s stance on climate is more posture than policy,” Craig Altemose, executive director of 350 Mass, declared in the Boston Globe.

The power sector also found the new regulations lacking. Nearly 90 percent of emissions reductions are required to come from the electricity sector, which has already dramatically reduced emissions as a result of RGGI.

The state acknowledges the need to address the transportation sector, and has pledged to register 300,000 electric vehicles by 2050. But a regional transportation plan as forward-thinking as RGGI will be essential for Massachusetts to meet its carbon emissions goals—and to continue to demonstrate, along with California and other forward-looking states, that the U.S. can meet its climate commitments despite inaction in Washington, D.C.—Karen Kahn