Get ready for Reggie

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Actually, that's RGGI, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, but friends call him "Reggie." It is the first of three multistate consortiums moving to reduce climate-harming gas emissions via a cap-and-trade system.

The "cap" refers to a limit on the carbon, methane, and other harmful gases that large polluters in a given area can release. The total amount is then divided into credits, which are essentially pollution rights, and distributed to the polluters. By putting a value on the credits, polluters that reduce their gas emissions can then "trade" their unused portion to others, giving polluters an economic incentive to conserve.

The system benefits us in two ways: First, obviously, the cap can be presumed to reduce the total emissions from the region (or why bother?). But also, if the credits are auctioned (as opposed to just handing them out, which, not surprisingly, is what the utilities want), a revenue stream also opens up for the public, which can then be used for whatever public aim is identified, though certainly promoting alternative energy research and commerce is an obvious starting point.

RGGI's first quarterly auction, the first of its kind in the nation, is scheduled for Sept. 10. (link here; sixth item) Presumably, we will soon become quite used to cap-and-trade; it is the greenhouse-gas reduction method favored by all three of the remaining presidential candidates. RGGI's members are the six New England states, plus New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware.

The other market-based solution is a greenhouse-gas tax, which would also create incentives for polluters to conserve and clean up while also creating a public revenue stream that could be used for any public purpose. That is, of course, the problem: People loathe taxes for any reason, and expect the politicians to use all that filthy lucre for earmarks, instead of for widely accepted necessities. Some consider a tax more efficient, because it would apply to any greenhouse-gas emitter.

Either way, some of the public money raised likely will have to be devoted to relief for low-income families, since, of course, if utilities have to pay more to produce power — remember, they had to buy the credits, and they'll have to burn most of them if they intend on creating power to sell — they will pass those costs on to consumers, and energy costs will rise. That will be, in effect, a regressive tax, since energy purchases are not elective, and comprise a larger proportion of household expenses for lower-income people.

Everyone else, meanwhile, can just get used to paying more. As the author James Kunstler told NESEA's public forum at Building Energy '08 a week ago, "It's not about what people like. It's about what we have to do."

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