RGGI Report: Less Pollution Drives Billions in Health Gains

The pioneering cap-and-invest program to cut carbon pollution from the power sector in nine Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states has created $5.7 billion in health savings throughout the region and in neighboring states.
The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is a public-health home run, providing benefits to the 9 participating Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states and their neighbors valued at $5.7 billion.
Credit: Abt Associates

This blog post was authored with my colleague Bruce Ho.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which launched in 2009 to fight climate change by cutting carbon pollution from power plants in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, also provides major public health benefits—including lives saved, asthma attacks prevented, and missed days of work avoided—according to a new report out today by Abt Associates. Together, these improvements are valued at a substantial $5.7 billion.

These results are yet another reason why the nine RGGI states—Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont—should continue to strengthen their pioneering program. They can do so by committing to additional carbon pollution reductions post-2020, something they’re negotiating toward now and which New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called for earlier this week. The Abt report also shows other states outside of RGGI that cutting carbon pollution can result in significant benefits.

As we’ve written before, RGGI is a pioneering cap-and-invest program that cuts carbon pollution from the power sector, while generating revenues that states invest in energy efficiency and other clean energy measures. The program’s successes are numerous and well documented. In fact, since 2009, RGGI has helped cut power plant carbon pollution by more than 37 percent, all while:

  • generating $2.9 billion in economic gains in the region;
  • saving consumers a substantial $618 million on their energy bills—with $4 billion more in savings expected in the coming years; and
  • creating 30,000 job-years (a job-year equals one-year of full-time work).

But that’s not all: As today’s report demonstrates, RGGI has also been a major public health success. Our friends at Acadia Center, for example, have calculated that RGGI and other complementary policies helped deliver $10 billion in health benefits between 2009 and 2014, because efforts to reduce carbon pollution also reduce emissions of dangerous sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) that pour out of power plant smokestacks along with carbon.

Today’s report adds to this picture, and is the most comprehensive study of RGGI’s contribution to public health thus far. Using publicly available, peer-reviewed air quality and public health models and historical data, Abt found that RGGI alone, and not any other factors, such as other environmental or energy policies or lower natural gas prices, produced $5.7 billion in public health benefits between 2009 and 2014. These benefits accrued to the nine current RGGI states, along with neighboring states such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, and include an estimated:

  • 300 to 830 lives saved;
  • 8,200 to 9,900 asthma attacks prevented;
  • 39,000 to 47,000 avoided lost days of work; and
  • 240,000 to 280,000 fewer restricted activity days due to poor air quality.

Moreover, Abt believes its calculation of RGGI’s health benefits is conservative because the study did not calculate RGGI-related reductions in ground-level ozone pollution, which can aggravate asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis, or health benefits from climate change mitigation more broadly. Nor did Abt’s study include the benefits that will occur in the future from energy efficiency measures that have already been installed under RGGI.

Today’s report also suggests that pursuing ambitious power sector carbon reductions within RGGI post-2020, combined with efforts to electrify transportation and heating using clean energy, can help the RGGI states continue to reap health benefits in future years. For example, Abt cites an American Lung Association study that found that shifting 65 percent of the light-duty vehicle fleet in eight northeastern states to zero-emission vehicles, such as battery-electric vehicles, could yield $12 billion in annual health benefits.

RGGI’s health benefits track record and its potential to achieve even more public health gains is yet another reason why the RGGI states should continue to strengthen their program and commit to further carbon pollution reductions post-2020. By committing to carbon reductions such as the 30 percent reduction by 2030 that New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo called for earlier this week—reductions of about 3 percent a year—and making other important program fixes, the RGGI states can continue to benefit from their innovative and successful program. RGGI’s successes can also teach other states how they can reap economic and public health benefits for their residents by taking bold action to address climate change now.

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