With great power comes great responsibility: Pennsylvania joins RGGI

As Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spider Man), “With great power comes great responsibility.” Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced today that he’s moving to get the Commonwealth into the northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

In a statement, Wolf said, “Climate change is the most critical environmental threat confronting the world, and power generation is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Given the urgency of the climate crisis facing Pennsylvania and the entire planet, the commonwealth must continue to take concrete, economically sound and immediate steps to reduce emissions. Joining RGGI will give us that opportunity to better protect the health and safety of our citizens.”

Agreed Mr. Wolf. The climate crisis face Pennsylvania’s residents and environment. With more miles of moving surface water than any state in the union except Alaska, climate-change-induced flooding is shaping up to damage infrastructure. As the temperature goes up and we have fewer cold snaps, pests like ticks, mosquitoes, and adelgids are harming human and hemlock health. The list of woes to recreation, agriculture, aquatic ecosystems, and other sectors in the Northeast chapter of the 2018 National Climate Assessment is like looking at a meteorological abattoir. Pennsylvania’s role in all of this is exceptional.

As my colleague Brandi Robinson and I wrote in The Washington Post, Pennsylvania is “the third-largest greenhouse-gas emitter in the United States despite having a right to a clean environment guaranteed in its state constitution.” Many of those greenhouse gas emissions come from the fact that we are the nation’s second biggest electricity exporter. Pennsylvania provides the lion’s share of power to the PJM grid, with enormous power output from coal, natural gas, and nuclear power. This is in large part because fossil fuels are right under our feet across the state and we were and still are the hub of northeastern industry. But our history is not just one of burning and powering.rggistateschart-529px

“The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.” So reads Article 1, Section 27 of our state constitution. Quite a different view of PA than the dirty powerhouse. But in this so-called “Green Amendment,” we see a more just and sustainable world.*

Joining RGGI is a beginning and Wolf should take even stronger action. While I was on the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors, we joined an effort led by the Clean Air Council to urge Pennsylvania’s Environmental Quality Board (EQB) to initiate a carbon cap-and-trade program on carbon emissions. That effort would impose a more aggressive price and drawdown mechanism on emissions across the Pennsylvania economy.

RGGI’s current $5/ton for carbon emissions should be higher. Using the EPA’s social cost of carbon calculator, the floor cost in 2020 would be $12/ton while an aggressive cost that incorporates more of the social costs of carbon emissions would be $123. No matter how you slice it, RGGI’s cost is too low. The Clean Air Council’s petition calls for a higher price and a way to escalate it over time to achieve emissions reductions more in line with a 1.5 C goal.

Therefore, the petition to EQB will continue. Joe Minott of the Clean Air Council told InsideClimate News, “[RGGI] is absolutely a backstop, and I told the governor that. We will not be dropping the petition, but we will be supporting the move to join RGGI, and we look forward to seeing the details.”

Me too. Economists have pointed out that pricing carbon will spur the adoption of low- and zero-carbon technologies in power production, transportation, manufacturing, and building efficiency. The $350 million of estimated revenue to come from RGGI could also relieve ratepayer bills and assist with resilient infrastructure. But it could be more, better, and faster.

Our state’s power entails even greater responsibility. Joining RGGI is a necessary step toward owning up to our legacy and stewarding our air, water, and natural, scenic, historic and esthetic landscapes for generations to come. It must be the first step, though, one followed by many more that move us farther and faster toward a more just and sustainable world.


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