Carbon cap-and-trade: A simple and proven climate solution for Virginia

Virginia is on the brink of launching a program ready to cut carbon emissions and start making some real progress on climate change. The program is proven to work, inexpensive, and will improve public health and the economy. But it hasn’t gotten off the ground because the General Assembly stripped its funding of about $200,000 in 2019—representing about 0.0003% of Virginia’s operating budget— and stunting the initiative that can make the Old Dominion a regional leader in curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

The program is simple and is proven to succeed. It taps into a carbon cap-and-trade model—the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI (pronounced like “Reggie”)—that nearby states have benefitted from for over a decade. Here’s how Virginia’s program works: If a utility in Virginia wants to burn fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas at its power plant, it has to buy an allowance for each ton of carbon dioxide it produces. These allowances can be bought or sold through the well-established RGGI auction. The number of available allowances is reduced each year, resulting in Virginia power plants emitting 30 percent less carbon dioxide into the air after just 10 years.

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States already participating in RGGI have seen carbon dioxide emissions fall 90 percent faster than the rest of the country, for an overall reduction of 47 percent over the last decade. Not only is RGGI helping cut emissions, but participating states are estimated to have experienced net economic benefits of $4 billion over the first decade of the initiative. Dominion Energy, the largest utility in Virginia, has said that if the state started the program in 2019, the first year alone could have resulted in a $7.8 million credit to customers.

But joining the initiative is about much more than economic benefits—it’s also about the immediate public and environmental health benefits Virginians will experience due to reductions in harmful pollutants and particulate matter in the air. Like those states already participating in RGGI, Virginia can expect fewer premature deaths, hospital visits, and lost work or school days associated with asthma and other respiratory illnesses, strokes, and heart attacks. And these health benefits can lead to even more economic growth: In just the first six years of RGGI’s existence, already-participating states have benefitted by an estimated $5.7 billion attributed to improved public health.

In the longer term, as more countries, states, and cities implement climate solutions, Virginia should also see improvements in the extreme weather and flooding events already affecting the state.

Climate change requires action now, we have the solutions, and Virginians are ready to take action. According to surveys and analysis by the Yale Program on Climate Change, about 70 percent of Virginians already support setting strict carbon dioxide limits on coal-fired plants. Let’s get to work on cutting carbon emissions and confronting climate change. Contact your state delegates and senators. Tell them you support this program because it will benefit Virginia’s economy, improve public and environmental health, and is an inexpensive step we can take to start addressing climate change now.

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