It seems like a reason to celebrate: Greenhouse gas emissions from Northeast power plants are about 36 percent below a cap set in a landmark climate change pact.
But the steep reductions, driven primarily by the region’s growing dependence on natural gas, are having the perverse effect of undermining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative because there are fewer financial incentives for polluting power companies to invest in cleaner technologies.
On Thursday, a coalition of more than 300 businesses, academics, and environmental and health groups sent a letter to the nine states involved in the pact, known as RGGI, to reset the cap to reach 20 percent below today’s emissions within eight years. Officials from the states are involved in a three-year review of the program.
“With emissions down, the governors have an opportunity to build on RGGI’s success,” said Peter Shattuck, director of market initiatives for Environment Northeast, a research and advocacy group. “Governors need to strengthen this proven, effective system to continue reducing pollution and driving the transition to a clean, modern energy system.”
While some states, such as Massachusetts, are expected to embrace some sort of reset button, others are not, and a battle is expected over what the correct cap should be. Some industry officials were quick to attack the idea.
“If the goal of RGGI was to reduce the levels of carbon dioxide, we say mission accomplished,’’ said Bob Rio, senior vice president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a trade group. “We should be celebrating, not looking for ways to make it more bureaucratic and to raise prices unnecessarily.”
RGGI is the first mandatory market-based program in the United States to reduce carbon dioxide, the main gas blamed by scientists for contributing to global warming.
Massachusetts and nine other states spent years coming up with a plan to cap large power plants’ emissions in 2009 and gradually reduce them by 10 percent over the next decade. New Jersey has since pulled out of the pact, although a lawsuit is challenging that move.
The program is designed to have power plants buy emission allowances from states for every ton of carbon dioxide they emit, with plants that emit larger amounts having to buy more allowances than cleaner ones. The number of available allowances decreases as the overall cap is lowered, raising the price, and ideally, encouraging plants to invest in clean technologies to avoid the higher cost of polluting.
But if emissions are significantly lower than the cap, there is less demand for allowances, driving prices down and giving power plants little financial incentive to invest in cleaner and more efficient technologies.
And that is exactly what has happened. According to an analysis by ENE, lower emissions are mostly the result of plants switching to less expensive natural gas, as well as from use of more renewable energy and stable electricity consumption. Mild weather and the weak economy have played a lesser role.
While RGGI has produced enormous benefit — more than $1 billion from selling pollution credits that largely have gone into paying for energy-efficiency and other green programs — far more can be accomplished, the groups say.
In Massachusetts, some of the $165 million in RGGI proceeds have gone to residents to help them buy more efficient appliances, but most have been used for energy-efficiency programs that can return $2 to $4 for every $1 invested, according to an ENE report. That’s because reduced demand for electricity allows people to spend money on other things, according to several lines of research.
The states do not have a deadline for deciding on a new cap — or whether to change it. However, a top Massachusetts official said improvements are needed.
“Massachusetts does believe the cap needs to be lowered,’’ said Kenneth L. Kimmell, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. “But whether that is 20 percent below today” isn’t known. He said more modeling and analysis is needed before a decision can be made.
Jim Wolf, sustainability program director for Cape Air, one of the businesses that signed the letter, said that the company is working to reduce its carbon footprint and that strengthening RGGI would help keep climate efforts moving forward.
“We believe that this is the perfect area where government and public initiatives and business work together,’’ Wolf said.
Some environmentalists say the need for action is particularly important as the country experiences more unpredictable weather, likely related to climate change. For example, extreme downpours and snowstorms are up 81 percent in Massachusetts since 1948, according to Environment America, an advocacy group.
“Now more than ever the public is becoming aware of the impacts global warming is having on our climate,” said Rob Sargent, energy program director for Environment America. “New England has been a leader [reducing]” carbon pollution. Strengthening RGGI is a huge opportunity to build on that progress.”