RGGI in North Carolina is a Rejection of Environmental Justice
by Donna Chavis, senior climate campaigner
The 30th anniversary of the Environmental Justice Summit traces its roots to North Carolina, the unexpected home of environmental justice and the place the term “environmental racism” was coined. As the state grapples with its lengthy history of racial exploitation it must recognize the ways the energy sector has scarred communities through fossil fuels and natural gas. To truly further environmental justice, North Carolina must divest from pervasive fossil fuel extraction and move toward a 100% renewable energy grid.
In 2020 North Carolina officials moved toward joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Established in 2005, the initiative is a mandatory cap-and-trade program that seeks to reduce greenhouse gases emissions in the United States power sector. To date, RGGI consists of eleven Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states.
At its core, RGGI seeks to set an annual cap on the region’s aggregate carbon dioxide emissions from the electric power sector. RGGI Inc. auctions off pollution permits to eligible power plants during quarterly intervals, which are then sold to other plants in a secondary market. The auctioned funds are dispersed back to the states for clean energy initiatives.
In its first decade, RGGI lowered the emissions cap by 2.5% annually since the program first took effect in 2008. Carbon dioxide emissions from power plants fell by 45% between 2006 and 2008 and in 2020 in RGGI states, a net decrease of between 80 and 90 million tons of carbon dioxide.
But for a state that must take immediate steps to promote environmental justice, RGGI does not provide an adequate path forward. The program fails to address environmental justice issues or prevent power plant pollution. Power plants buy and sell permits based on local energy needs without taking into consideration the populations that will suffer most from the pollution. In cases of discriminatory siting, RGGI power plants tended to be located in more vulnerable populations.
In our current energy systems, people of color and lower-income communities disproportionately suffer health risks from living near power plants, such as higher death rates at earlier ages, increased risks for respiratory disease, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease. They are also more likely to see their land, water, and air degraded from excessive pollution. Acid rain, heavy metal and ground-level ozone pollution will likely worsen due to approved power plant pollution, harming public health and the natural environment.
Despite its popularity among member states, the RGGI model does little to curb emissions or transition states to renewable energy sources. In fact, according to the Congressional Research Service, RGGI’s reductions to the global accumulation of atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions are arguably negligible. In its first decade, most of the Northeast’s progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions actually came from technological improvements, reduced renewable energy costs, and the regional decline of coal.
As RGGI explicitly allows for greenhouse gas emissions, it would not put North Carolina on track to eliminate fossil fuel production. RGGI’s greenhouse gas emissions cap has consistently been much higher than actual emissions. The permits also sell cheaply so power plants face little pressure to dramatically reduce emissions.
Low-income North Carolinians and people of color disproportionately bear the health and land degradation consequences of such ineffective practices. Rather than trying to greenwash its power sector, North Carolina must invest in renewable energy and reduce environmental hardships faced by low-income communities and people of color.
Governor Cooper and state officials must renounce RGGI and pursue a program that supports 100% renewable energy, ends all fossil fuel subsidies, and supports the socioeconomic well-being and public health of environmental justice communities.