RGGI Review: An Opportunity to Include Environmental Justice in Emissions Market Design

November 7, 2016 | 10:50 am
Juan Declet-Barreto
Senior Social Scientist for Climate Vulnerability

Confronting climate change, reducing emissions that warm the planet, and protecting the health of the most vulnerable are increasingly recognized as environmental justice issues.  As the blatant disregard for both drinking water and the welfare of people of Flint, Michigan, recently showed us, communities on the frontlines of environmental pollution are actively demanding redress of environmental inequities. In Massachusetts and elsewhere in the Northeast, discussions around leading multi-state efforts to combat climate change are an opportunity to bring these issues front and center.


CO2 emissions in the RGGI region have decreased impressively since 2009. How have these reductions been distributed among vulnerable communities is also important to understand.. Graphics credit: The Analysis Group.

CO2 emissions in the RGGI region have decreased impressively since 2009. How have these reductions been distributed among vulnerable communities is also important to understand.

Emissions reductions from burning dirty fossil fuels for electricity production is one front in the struggle to combat environmental injustices where frontline communities are demanding equitable solutions. In the U.S. northeast, the New England states, along with New York, Maryland, and Delaware, a market-based mechanism for reducing power sector emissions has been in effect since 2009. The Regional Greenhouse Gases Initiative (RGGI) is an emissions trading bloc that has succeeded in reducing the regional footprint of carbon pollution from electricity generation.

Cutting emissions of heat-trapping gases through programs like RGGI is really important for public health. But it’s also expected that as emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 are reduced, emissions of dangerous co-pollutants like particulate matter (PM) and ozone precursors will follow suit. Reducing co-pollutant emissions is critical to safeguard public health because even short-term exposures to these contaminants can trigger asthma and heart attacks, and worsen other cardiovascular and respiratory conditions.

Regional cap-and-trade emissions markets like RGGI are designed to minimize the cost of utilities’ compliance with environmental regulations compared to what are commonly known as command-and-control regulations. These costs are narrowly defined as operational and investment costs for utilities, for example retrofitting plants with emissions control equipment or switching to lower-emissions fuels.

Some environmental justice advocates are concerned that these macro-economic cost valuations don’t consider localized impacts of emissions trading markets. In the course of compliance, for example, older plants that burn coal can fire more and more often because it’s cheaper to do so, while it may still be possible for utilities to offset those emissions with renewables and comply with their aggregate emissions reductions obligations. Because many of those coal power plants are located in communities where mostly low-income people of color live, they will be more exposed to localized emissions of PM and ozone precursors than other communities farther away from the plants.

The economic valuation of the social cost of carbon (along with the pollutants co-produced as carbon is emitted) also gives credence to environmental justice advocates’ claim that cost valuations as purely operational or capital and maintenance costs ignore the public health costs associated with power plant emissions.

Public engagement towards more equitable carbon and co-pollutant reductions

Environmental justice and carbon market advocates are starting to find common ground in finding ways to reduce emissions in ways that prioritize equity. The RGGI program, under review at the moment, provides a great opportunity for stakeholders of all persuasions to get together and explore how to improve a system that, at least in the aggregate, has delivered emissions reductions.

In Massachusetts (a RGGI participant), the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) are sponsoring hearings over the next couple of weeks that will help shape the future of RGGI.

Engaging in this public process is critical to carbon reductions and equity because, in the words of frontline community advocates, the current RGGI program review will “determine whether coal, oil and gas-fired power plants will continue to devastate Massachusetts communities or if the state will meet its climate targets.

In these hearings, state and RGGI officials will describe RGGI and the revenues from the program, while community members will testify about the burden of fossil fuels and other sources of pollution in their communities.

Engagement between carbon policy experts and community members to understand each other’s perspectives is essential to work together towards more equitable emissions reductions outcomes. I encourage all those with a stake in our communities’ health and well-being to get involved and make their voices heard.

Massachusetts meetings information:


About the author

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Dr. Declet-Barreto earned a Ph.D. in environmental social sciences, M.A. and B.S. degrees in geography, and an associate’s degree in geographic information systems, from Arizona State University. At UCS, his research maps, analyzes, and finds solutions to the unequal human health and livelihood impacts of environmental hazards, particularly those exacerbated by climate change.