America's first formal crack at regulating industrial greenhouse gas emissions kicked off last week with a much-ballyhooed carbon auction that should prove to be a landmark moment in the fight against climate change. Ok, so it's not a national program--only ten states are participating--and even its biggest boosters hesitate to say it'll, you know, actually reduce carbon emissions. But that's alright. This doomed-to-failure program (or, at least, doomed-to-very modest success) will prove invaluable, mostly for the lessons learned from what goes wrong.
Fed up by a lack of leadership on the national level, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI, or "reggie") is an effort launched by a consortium of northeastern states--all of New England, plus New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware--to create a "cap and trade" program to limit emissions of carbon dioxide, global warming's main culprit.
It's based on the lauded "purchase-credit-to-pollute" models of the 1990s that proved effective in reducing acid rain, and works something like this: The RGGI states have set a cap at 188 million tons of CO2 for 233 fossil fuel-burning power plants throughout the region. In last Thursday's auction, about 12.5 million "allowances" (each good for a ton of carbon) were sold off. Each plant's carbon output has been measured and an individual cap is set proportionally. If they emit more pollution than their cap, they need to buy up enough allowances to cover the overage. If they emit less, they can sell off their extra allowances.