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The Podium

Getting serious about the clean energy revolution

A wind turbine in Fall River.

Joanne Rathe/Globe File

A wind turbine in Fall River.

Led by a courageous bipartisan group of farsighted governors, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative was hailed at its creation in 2009 as a declaration of independence in the clean energy revolution. The New England and Mid-Atlantic states that joined RGGI were among the original 13 colonies that forged this country’s first revolution; with the creation of RGGI, they led the way in the 21st century’s clean energy revolution.

RGGI was a move toward Massachusetts’ independence from shipping billions of dollars to other states and countries to fuel our electric power plants; independence from polluting fossil fuels; and independence from the tyranny of rising and volatile energy prices.

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But with RGGI scheduled for a review on Tuesday to set a new cap on emissions, our leaders must once again take bold action or risk failure of the program.

The question is: Will they have the foresight to make the changes necessary to help reduce greenhouse gas pollution and support the clean energy revolution that is improving our environment and growing our economy?

By many measures the program has been a success, proving that a well-designed, market-based emissions trading system can spur economic growth and decrease energy consumption.

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Through investments in efficiency and renewable energy, the program has already created $1.6 billion in economic value and set the stage for $1.1 billion in ratepayer savings. The program also showed a positive employment impact and reduced payments to out-of-region providers of fossil fuels by more than $750 million.

Moreover, RGGI and other farsighted policies have paved the way for Massachusetts to become a leader in the burgeoning clean energy sector. With a blistering annual growth rate of 11.2 percent in 2011, the state’s clean energy sector has created more than 71,000 jobs at nearly 5,000 companies.

Also, contrary to dire predictions from the Koch brothers and others, electric rates in Massachusetts have dropped by 12 percent since the start of the program.

Though successful on many levels, the program is now completely out of line with actual emissions, which in 2011 were a staggering 34 percent below the RGGI cap. This decline was principally caused by reduced generation from fuel oil and coal, and increased generation from natural gas, renewables, and nuclear, as well as by investments in energy efficiency.

These trends show no sign of reversing, suggesting that emissions will remain low in the RGGI region in the future.

Unfortunately, all the proposals under consideration for the new cap in the program’s next phase are inadequate. Even though we’re staring down the barrel of undeniably accelerating climate change, none of the current proposals would lead to meaningful reductions in emissions from current levels, with the best case leaving us with nearly the same level of emissions that we have today.

We need a lower cap if RGGI is going to make a serious contribution to addressing climate change and continue to spur economic growth. The annual limit should reduce carbon emissions to 20 percent below current levels by 2020, and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. This will help avert adverse environmental and economic impacts predicted by climate science.

Have no doubt about it. Clean energy is under attack from fossil fuel interests and our region’s leadership is in question. California recently launched its own program to cap emissions that goes well beyond RGGI. And though we complain about the growth of emissions from China, leaders there are moving forward with cap-and-trade systems in several provinces and are planning to implement a national program within a few years.

The Articles of Confederation, the first effort to unify our country, was a good step in the right direction but ultimately failed because it was too weak. Likewise, the first phase of RGGI set us on the right path, but the program is doomed to fail unless it is dramatically strengthened.

RGGI can pave the way toward lower emissions, higher economic growth and enhanced innovation – but only if we have the political will to make it happen.

Berl Hartman is a co-founder and director of the New England chapter of Environmental Entrepreneurs.
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