We Can Go Back Again

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New Jersey proves that we will be able to go back again. When all seems bleak politically on the national scene, we can look to New Jersey for reassurance. After 8 years of the regressive governor, Chris Christie, the people of New Jersey had the sense to elect a Democratic governor, Philip D. Murphy. He promptly ordered his state to rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (R.G.G.I)., a regional state cap-and-trade system aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Under the R.G.G.I. regime, power plants in participating states must buy permits from the state to emit carbon dioxide. States use the revenue generated to fund greenhouse gas reduction projects. Power plants can trade emission permits among themselves, but the number of permits available declines over time, driving power plants to pursue cleaner energy sources and thereby reduce their emissions overall.

Murphy noted that pulling out of the R.G.G.I. program had cost New Jersey $279 million during Christie's reign. Valuable time was also lost, and time is of the essence in fighting global climate change. Emissions need to be reduced now rather than tomorrow.

But better late than never. Maryland is also a member of the R.G.G.I., as are Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware and other mid-Atlantic and northeastern states. California has a more ambitious program that covers not only power plants, but also factories, oil refineries and other greenhouse gas polluters. The new governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, is exploring the possibility of a program for Virginia. Oregon may pass legislation to create its own cap-and-trade system. Governor Inslee of Washington state wants to impose a direct tax on carbon emissions from all sources.

The R.G.G.I. program has been effective; emissions from electricity in R.G.G.I. states have fallen 40 percent since 2009 - faster than in the rest of the country - while electricity prices have declined 3.9 percent. Coal-powered plants have been retired in favor of natural gas-, solar- and wind-sourced energy. Meanwhile, regulators have tightened the program's cap in order to achieve an additional 30 percent cut in power-plant emissions by 2030. The states that are leading the way in the use of carbon pricing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions accounted for roughly 21 percent of America's carbon dioxide emissions in 2015. It's not enough, but when we elect progressive national leaders again, and we will, the experience of the vanguard states will provide valuable lessons for a national initiative.

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