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NC should act fast on greenhouse gases without harming low-income communities

·3 min read

From drought and extreme heat in the West to flooding and intensifying storms in the Southeast, events we currently deem “extreme” are becoming increasingly and terrifyingly normal. With this reality, North Carolina has a responsibility and opportunity to act boldly in the fight against climate change in a way that ensures access for all and addresses historic environmental inequities.

North Carolina has outlined several state-led pathways with potential to slow climate change. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is one of the latest policies it seeks to add to its arsenal of climate solutions. While RGGI offers a pathway to promoting carbon reduction, securing meaningful investment in clean energy, and accelerating the transition to a clean economy, serious attention must be paid to its costs and impacts to avoid further harm to low-income communities.

RGGI can and must avoid hot-spotting — where energy producers shift generation to “cheaper” polluting sources in frontline communities even while decreasing emissions statewide. Additionally, RGGI imposes an emissions-reduction cost onto energy producers that could be passed on to ratepayers. Without explicit guidelines, which N.C. regulators can and should implement, low-income households that already experience energy burden from high utility bills would see this increase.

We know it’s possible to implement RGGI in a way that addresses these concerns and avoids burdening disadvantaged communities. Other states are taking steps in the right direction.

Virginia law mandates that 50% of RGGI revenues go to programs that improve energy efficiency and lower bills for low-income households. Pennsylvania codified a set of equity goals as mandatory rules for participation. They include gathering input in a way that includes disadvantaged communities, making sure that environmental and structural racism are not replicated in the engagement process, and equitably distributing any economic benefits that might result from the RGGI process.

For North Carolina, RGGI represents an opportunity to address climate change while stimulating economic development and job growth — but only if explicit commitments to advancing equity and justice are central to implementation.

According to E2’s Clean Jobs American 2021 report, clean energy sectors employed almost 100,000 North Carolinians at the end of 2020, despite setbacks due to COVID. By leveraging clean energy’s job creation potential through smart policy like RGGI, the state can continue its economic recovery and spur economic growth while creating good paying jobs in clean energy.

Data shows that RGGI could spur investment and job growth in North Carolina. Data from the Acadia Center shows that economies in RGGI states are growing 31% faster than in non-RGGI states.

At its best, RGGI is an opportunity for N.C. to address climate change while stimulating economic development and job growth. At its worst — without essential guidelines — it has the potential to increase environmental burden for disadvantaged communities. North Carolina has a window and a responsibility to act on climate in a way that advances environmental justice and protects communities. Now is the time to lead.

William J. Barber III, a Durham environmental activist, is Senior Fellow of Environmental Justice and Civic Engagement at the Center for Earth Ethics. Ethan Blumenthal is co-founder and CEO of Good Solar.

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