By Ramona du Houx

September 26, 2020

Researchers estimate Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative Regional (RGGI) has helped the north east reduce toxic air pollution and avoid hundreds of preterm births, asthma cases, low birth weights and possible cancer cases.

RGGI was established in 2005 and administered its first auction of carbon dioxide emissions allowances in 2008. RGGI has been an economic success story and has become a model for other states and regions hoping to reap economic, health, and social benefits in the transition to a clean energy economy.  Between 2009–2017, RGGI states have seen a net economic benefit of $4.7 billion from the program.

RGGI is a cap-n-trade market-based program that reduces greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector. It’s a cooperative effort among ten states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Together, RGGI states set a regional limit on the amount of carbon pollution that power plants are allowed to emit and sell pollution permits up to this limit through quarterly auctions. RGGI’s design requires large fossil-fuel power plants to buy the pollution permits, and the number of permits is lowered each year, so that the region’s power plants contribute progressively fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Participating states sell nearly all emission allowances through auctions and use the revenue to spur innovation and jobs in the clean energy economy.

How auction revenues are used by states is up to the individual state. For example, in Maine the funds go are administered by the Energy Efficiency Trust. Created during the Baldacci administration, the trust invests funds for energy efficiency and clean energy programs to address both the electricity and heating energy needs of Maine people, as long as they meet tests for cost-effectiveness. Tens of millions of dollars have been invested in weatherization, conservation, and efficiency programs.

People living in the region have already saved $773 million in energy costs through energy efficiency measures and cost-saving renewable energy projects.

RGGI means less pollution and better health outcomes for north east—

According to a report from the nonprofit Acadia Center, RGGI has reduced power plant emissions by almost 47 percent since it started, far outpacing the rest of the country in reducing emissions.

Since the program began, RGGI has helped cut carbon pollution from power plants by more than half. At this rate, the pollution cap is slated to decline by 2.5 percent a year through 2020 and 3 percent a year between 2021 and 2030. RGGI has also led to reductions in other dangerous pollutants that pour out of power plant smokestacks alongside carbon pollution. Mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter—are linked to developmental delays, heart attacks, premature births, asthma, other respiratory diseases, and cancer.

Between 2009 and 2014, RGGI created health benefits valued at $5.7 billion.

A new study led by researchers from the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, found the RGGI has reduced fine particulate matter (PM2.5). PM2.5 consists of toxic airborne particles, and is linked to a variety of health impacts including respiratory and heart problems, birth impacts and altered brain development for children.

Due to this reduction, the region avoided an estimated 537 cases of child asthma, 112 preterm births, 98 cases of autism spectrum disorder, and 56 cases of low birthweight from 2009 to 2014. By avoiding such impacts to children’s health, the researchers estimate an economic savings of between $191 million to $350 million.

“These estimates of cost are definitely underrated, as they do not include the long-term lifetime costs of these disorders or impairments,” said lead author Frederica Perera, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia Mailman School and director of translational research at Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health. “Preterm births, for example, raise the risk for respiratory illness in adulthood, and for cognitive effects like decreased IQ, so we can consider these conservative estimates.”

The Acadia Center study researchers looked at reductions in nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, which, once emitted from power plants, react in the atmosphere to form PM2.5. RGGI levels of PM2.5, carbon monoxide, lead, ground-level ozone, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide have decreased, health outcomes have gotten better because of RGGI.

However, Perera said they were also unable to track health benefits by race or income level, as they would have needed finer, neighborhood level data.

“We hope the results will spur policymakers when designing these policies to consider the health benefits to children and how to maximize those,” said Perera.

In 2017, Abt Associates estimated that the total value of health benefits from the initiative from 2009 to 2014 were between $3 billion and $8.3 billion, with roughly 300 to 830 avoided premature adult deaths.

According to a report from the World Resources Institute, an international research organization, 41 states managed to cut their carbon emissions between 2005 and 2017. America’s Northeast region cut emissions by around 24 percent. In contrast, most Western states — including Washington and California — saw their carbon emissions rise or decrease “only slightly’ over the entire period.

Job creation—
  • RGGI has created 45,000 job-years of work across the region since the program’s launch (a job-year equals one year’s worth of full-time employment for one person).
  • RGGI added $4.3 billion in economic value to the region.
  • Between 2008 and 2016, economic growth in the RGGI states outpaced that of non-RGGI states by 4.3 percent. The RGGI states cut power plant carbon pollution faster than the rest of the nation.
  • Over RGGI’s first eight years, electricity prices in the region fell by 6.4 percent, even as prices rose by an average of 6.2 percent in other states.

Currently, Virginia is in the process of joining RGGI. Pennsylvania’s governor wants to but has encountered roadblocks from his legislature. With RGGI’s expansion it’s critical for new states to commit to carbon pollution cuts in line with current commitments.