WASHINGTON - Although the crisis on Wall Street is dominating the news, a seemingly obscure on-line auction is taking a historic first step today toward solving a much greater long-term crisis: that of global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Today, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) holds a historic auction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions allowances.
Starting on January 1, 2009, large electric utilities in the 10 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states that are signatories to RGGI must have enough carbon dioxide allowances in-hand to cover emissions from their power plants. They can buy these allowances at quarterly auctions. The RGGI effort, the first binding agreement in the U.S. to limit greenhouse gas emissions, will yield benefits beyond its direct impact on global warming, by also encouraging the development of new technologies and green jobs that will be essential for a sustainable economy in the years to come. At a time when Congress and the Administration have repeatedly failed to agree on a national plan to limit CO2 emissions, the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont have shown their leadership by signing the historic RGGI agreement. Under the plan, these 10 states will cap CO2 emissions from the power sector, and then require a 10 percent reduction in these emissions by 2018. We applaud this precedent-setting plan to create the first mandatory, market-based CO2 emissions reduction program in the United States. Rather than giving some percentage of carbon allowances away to power plants, RGGI states plan to auction nearly all of the allowances, and will spend the auction revenue on programs that help homeowners, businesses, and others. We believe this is a better approach than other plans that auction only a very small number of the total allowances. The Western Climate Initiative announced this week, for example, calls for a minimum auction level of 10% at the start of the program, increasing to only 25% by 2020. Global warming is increasingly recognized as the central global environmental challenge of this century. As a result of extravagant fossil fuel use, both people and nature will be increasingly stressed over the coming decades by rising temperatures, more intense storms, regional droughts, and expanding ranges of invasive pests and diseases. Without effective policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the vast public lands that The Wilderness Society and the American public value so highly are at grave risk. Early action by the RGGI states will serve as an important model as we move toward a national policy to address this critical threat to our natural security.