by Sara Via, PhD
By supporting a stronger Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), Governor Larry Hogan could establish Maryland as a clear climate leader. By the end of this year, the nine member states of RGGI will decide on the rules shaping the program’s performance from 2020-2030. Their deliberations come at a critical time in history because carbon emissions must be in sharp decline by 2030 if the world is to avoid the most serious consequences of climate change. The longer we wait past 2018, the more painful the solution will become. Now that the federal government has abdicated its responsibility for climate action, the entire burden of finding and implementing solutions falls to state and local jurisdictions. This makes it more important than ever to capitalize on RGGI’s documented success in reducing carbon emissions.
There is now little time for procrastination. We know what has to be done (move to a low-carbon economy). The solutions become more affordable by the moment as prices for clean renewable energy decline. In fact, according to a recent report from Citibank, it is now cheaper to solve the climate problem than it is to do nothing and face the consequences.
However, decisive and ambitious action is hard, even when it comes to simply making an established and successful program like RGGI more ambitious. We already know that RGGI works and provides significant economic and health benefits to the member states, to the tune of $2.9 billion in economic value from the sale of allowances, 30,000 job-years created and $618 million saved on energy bills, with billions more expected in the next decade. RGGI has produced significant public health benefits by reducing air pollution from power plants, preventing 8,200 asthma attacks, 39,000 lost work days and 300 premature deaths from 2009-2014. It is truly unfortunate that the health costs of pollution-related disease are rarely considered when formulating energy policy, because at $5.8 billion, the monetized value of these health benefits is twice the economic value the states have obtained from the sale of pollution allowances.
During the last year, extensive modeling has been performed to guide RGGI’s 2016 Program Review. However, this modeling has been too conservative to reveal the best balance between reducing the amount of carbon pollution allowed each year (the cap) and the costs of increased stringency. Even the most ambitious reduction of carbon pollution modeled to date is projected to cost only $3 per month for the average Maryland family, and that is before including the expected economic benefits and public health benefits that RGGI has delivered in the past.
We are now near the end of the 2016 Program Review. Maryland and the other RGGI states owe it to the region’s citizens to model a cap reduction strategy that is ambitious enough to do the job, that is to reduce carbon emissions 35-40 percent by 2030, a goal that each of the RGGI states has independently embraced. Governor Hogan agreed to this goal when he signed the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act of 2016. Analyses show that the least-cost route to achieving this goal is to reduce carbon emissions from the electric sector by the amount equivalent to a five percent annual cap reduction.
Environmentalists have been calling on the RGGI states for months to model this five percent annual cap reduction scenario. Why not go ahead and run these models now and perform a thorough economic analysis on the results? Just running the models doesn’t mean that the states have to adopt this scenario, but at least it will reveal whether this scenario can produce the emissions reductions we need at a reasonable cost.
A lack of ambition by the RGGI states now could have serious consequences – if we miss the critical 2030 emissions goals, it may become all but impossible to catch up to what is needed by 2050. At this pivotal time in history, running a few extra models and seriously considering all the benefits of the results seems little enough to ask.
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Dr. Sara Via is co-lead of Chesapeake PSR's Climate Health Action Team and a professor of biology and entomology at University of Maryland.