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North Carolina is considering joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cooperative of East Coast states designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector.

Currently, the RGGI includes 11 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia. It works to lower emissions using a free-market approach, featuring private companies purchasing an allowance for every ton of pollution that the company creates. North Carolina’s decision is currently debated, as it heads to a second commission for a vote.

The RGGI allows the private and public sectors to team up toward a more sustainable future. It incentivizes states to shrink carbon emissions while reducing or even eliminating any possible negative economic impact of doing so. It functions as a cap-and-trade or cap-and-invest system between carbon dioxide producers and state governments. Energy producers must purchase credits called allowances to legally increase their emissions capacity over a given period. States then sell their allowances through quarterly auctions, and the capital raised goes to renewable energy and energy efficiency investments. The goal is to reach a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2030, though some states have already seen reductions as high as 47 percent. All in all, RGGI has encouraged significant new growth in the economy in participating states. In essence, it gives businesses a choice: reduce carbon emissions or pay the state to do so.

Photo Courtesy Alexander Tsang

For North Carolina, joining RGGI could mean a 70 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 – and a carbon-neutral status by 2050.

“[This] generally aligns with what the scientists are telling us we really need to do to avoid the worst impacts of climate change,” explained Derb Carter, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Though many welcome the prospect of the state joining the RGGI, there’s another approach to sustainability that’s been floated. A recently introduced state bill – House Bill 951 – offers emission reductions, but would artificially limit the amount of renewable energy that can be activated.

“All in all, we’re glad that we’re supporting a petition to get the state in RGGI because this bill closes the state’s energy market to clean energy,” said Joel Porter, Clean Air Carolina’s Policy Manager.

Utility giant Duke Energy – who negotiated the bill’s terms – suggests that the legislation will reduce carbon emissions and diversify the state’s use of clean energy, including the addition of 5,500 megawatts of new solar power. But the bill also mandates replacing two of the state’s largest coal-fired plants with natural gas, rather than allowing renewable energy to potentially serve as a viable alternative. Clean air advocates say it will fall significantly short of clean energy goals, put a damper on job growth, and raise energy prices for consumers. More than 30 textile manufacturers have expressed financial concerns about the bill. Recently, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper spoke out against the bill for these reasons.

Photo Courtesy Elijah Mears

Now, North Carolina stands at a crossroads in the path to a renewable energy power grid. If the state chooses to join RGGI, it’s teaming up with a collective in an essential and innovative way to clean up the air, water, and soil without restrictions. Fewer emissions mean fewer health problems and less strain on healthcare. It’s also something both economists and environmentalists see as effective: a free-market approach to a sustainable, healthy future.

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