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Opinion | Gina McCarthy

States pick up the clean energy torch

Policy makers always worry about unintended consequences. President Trump might not be one of them. His move to cancel the Clean Power Plan and exit the Paris Agreement is a prime example of how misguided moves can backfire. With his objective of maintaining the status quo, suppressing the burgeoning renewable energy industry, and stifling clean-energy job growth, Trump has spurred a competition on the local level about who will take the lead on climate action. Nine governors — five Republicans and four Democrats — across the mid-Atlantic states and New England, are sprinting ahead.

After more than 20 months of negotiations, this bipartisan group reached a landmark agreement to cut pollution by 30 percent by 2030, through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. Demonstrating that local leaders are eager to confront climate change even as Trump retreats, their plan will reduce carbon pollution by over 132 million tons by 2030, the equivalent of taking 28 million cars off the road per year. America’s first-ever carbon trading market, launched in 2009, achieves these benefits by capping power plant pollution and putting a price on carbon to generate revenue. By incrementally lowering the cap, it spurs power plants to cut climate-changing emissions and raises funds that can be invested in clean energy technology.


This announcement came the same week the US Department of Energy released a report that the Trump administration will use to give preference to the oil and gas industry under the guise of grid reliability and economic growth, but the argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The clean energy train in this country has left the station, not only because it’s cheaper and it’s clean, but also because it’s reliable and more resilient. RGGI states have experienced 3.6 percent higher economic growth than the rest of the United States, creating more than 22,000 jobs, while cutting power sector carbon emissions by 40 percent over the last nine years. Consumer electricity consumption across the region was cut by 3.4 percent.

Driving down emissions while driving economic opportunity is exactly the outcome we had in mind in 2003, when I served as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and worked with environmental and energy officials from nine other states to get RGGI off the ground. We faced the same questions that continue to be asked today about whether American ingenuity can confront climate change in ways that won’t stagnate the economy. Given RGGI’s past success and the strong recommitment we see today, there is no room, or time, for continued doubt.


RGGI states didn’t just grow the economy and combat climate impacts; between 2009 and 2014, the reduction in air pollution paid off in the form of $5.7 billion dollars in reduced health costs. Reduced emissions in RGGI states are estimated to have saved between 300 and 830 lives, avoided over 8,000 asthma attacks, and averted 39,000 lost work days; and these benefits will only increase now that RGGI will be strengthened.

By increasing the program’s ambition and extending it until 2030, the nine-governor agreement promises to be a beginning and not an end for regional climate action. I encourage the RGGI governors to consider additional opportunities that may come to light that would strengthen the agreement even further. As policies are put in place to tackle power sector emissions, they may want to consider broadening their efforts to encompass sectors with rapidly growing emission, such as transportation.


As this agreement shows, just because the administration in Washington is asleep when it comes to climate change and clean energy, it doesn’t mean the United States is asleep. Everywhere I go, I see the bipartisan enthusiasm on the local level for solutions that spur economic growth, improve public health, and reduce pollution. Since the president’s announcement to pull out of the Paris Agreement, a network of nearly 2,300 members representing $6.2 trillion of the US economy formed the organization We Are Still In to fight climate change. California’s legislature voted to extend the state’s landmark cap and trade program until 2030. The US Conference of Mayors adopted a slate of climate and energy resolutions.

Since its inception, RGGI has been a trailblazer, demonstrating that the transition to clean energy doesn’t require sacrificing a growing economy. With Trump’s team extinguishing our federal leadership, the bipartisan leaders in states throughout the nation are uniting, and picking up the torch.

Gina McCarthy was head of the US Environmental Protection Agency from 2013 to 2017. She served as an environmental adviser to five Massachusetts Democratic and Republican administrations.