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New Study: Cap and Trade Program Drives Pollution Increases in Vulnerable Communities

Groundbreaking new analysis shows that under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), pollution increases in neighborhoods with poorer communities and communities of color.

WASHINGTON - New research from Food & Water Watch shows that the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which has been misleadingly lauded as an effective means of reducing carbon emissions, actually increases the pollution burden in vulnerable communities near the power plants covered by the cap and trade program.

The findings are especially significant as lawmakers seek to expand RGGI. New Jersey will re-join next year, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has put forward a plan to join, and Democratic gains in Virginia elections this year are expected to yield a push for that state to join as well.

The Food & Water Watch analysis studied emissions from power plants covered under RGGI, a cap and trade program that covers nine states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont).

Research has consistently shown that polluting facilities are located in neighborhoods with more people of color and higher levels of poverty. The same patterns are evident for power plants covered by the RGGI trading program.

While overall carbon emissions decline across the region, the research finds that neighborhoods that saw increases in carbon dioxide emissions from RGGI facilities had more people of color and were poorer than neighborhoods that experienced reduced emissions during the same period.

These disparate impacts were even more dramatic when factoring in emissions of co-pollutants like particulate matter. Neighborhoods that experienced increases of both types of emissions displayed even wider disparities, with higher proportions of people of color and lower median household incomes compared to neighborhoods that experienced decreases in both pollutants.


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“The problem with these cap and trade programs is simple: Polluters can continue to spew emissions that are hazardous to human health and the environment,” said Alison Grass, Research Director at Food & Water Watch. “The states that are already participating in RGGI, and those poised to join, must confront the fact that this program intensifies pollution in vulnerable communities. Given RGGI’s track record, it is clear that cap and trade is not a climate solution, it is an environmental justice disaster that serves to intensify pollution in low-income communities and communities of color.”

The study gathered annual carbon emissions data between 2011-2013 and 2014-2016, to capture any changes due to a major revision in the pollution ‘cap’ in 2014. In addition to gathering data on carbon dioxide (the pollutant targeted by RGGI), the study also looked at particulate emissions that are not covered, but are nonetheless linked to a host of health problems. Those emissions were evaluated for 2011 and 2014.

While RGGI does not account for these harmful co-pollutants, this environmental justice analysis gives us a broader understanding of the harmful impacts of fossil fuel infrastructure. The power plants covered by RGGI emit pollutants like mercury, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). These substances are linked to a host of health complications including respiratory infections, certain types of cancer, bronchitis, asthma, and heart disease. Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is an especially harmful pollutant, associated with airway inflammation, asthma, lung infections, hypertension, and cardiovascular diseases.

These findings mirror a 2018 study of California’s cap and trade program, which found that more than half of the facilities in that program actually increased carbon emissions as well as toxic co-pollutants. Like the new RGGI study, the California analysis determined those increases were most dramatic in communities with more economically and socially disadvantaged residents.

Read the report here:


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Food & Water Watch is a nonprofit consumer organization that works to ensure clean water and safe food. We challenge the corporate control and abuse of our food and water resources by empowering people to take action and by transforming the public consciousness about what we eat and drink.

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