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The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Just Announced a First-of-Its-Kind Plan to Put a Dent in Automobile Emissions

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Nine states between Virginia and Vermont are taking steps to clean up their biggest source of carbon pollution. On Tuesday, they along with Washington, D.C., announced they’re building a regional cap-and-trade system to cut vehicle emissions and reinvest in low-carbon transit.

The details for what that program and how much it will cut emissions will take shape over the next year, but the proposal would be the first-of-its-kind in the U.S. To date, most efforts to curb carbon emissions have focused on power plants and electricity. But transportation represents the largest source of carbon pollution in the country and the only sector where emissions rose in 2017. So it makes sense that states are ramping up their efforts to combat it even as the Trump administration tries to pull the country as a whole in the opposite direction.


The Transportation and Climate Initiative made the announcement on Tuesday, noting that the decision to move forward on reducing transportation emissions was made after a year of listening sessions and input from hundreds of stakeholders. The plan is to identify a cap on transportation emissions and then put a price on them, a process known as cap-and-trade. That price on carbon could manifest itself in the form of an additional gas fee, which the states in the agreement will then invest the earnings from into low-carbon transit options.

“The price on carbon is good, but you can take that money raised and invest it to achieve greater results,” David Farnsworth, a senior associate at the Regulatory Assistance Project, told Earther.


Farnsworth helped design the power plant cap-and-trade program that a number of the states region are part of that’s known as RGGI. While details are forthcoming on how the transportation policy could work, he said following the RGGI model could be a fruitful path to draw down emissions. The transportation sector is far and away the largest source carbon emissions in the nine states plus Washington, D.C., accounting for 44 percent of all emissions according to Energy Information Agency data.

The move comes at a time when transportation emissions are moving to the forefront of the climate fight, though it’s not necessarily because things are going great. This summer, the Trump administration announced its plan to roll back fuel efficiency standards, ignoring its own science showing how bad an idea that was for the climate. And within the past month, France’s plan for a technocratic carbon tax led to massive protests and served as a warning that any plan to cut emissions that doesn’t consider their impact on workers and low-income communities is garbage.

“If it’s just the cap, then you’re going to end up like France,” Farnsworth said, referring to the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic initiative. “If you’re putting people having a tough time in a tougher position, it’s going to pop the top.”

As ways to make the policy more effective and equitable, he suggested reinvesting the money raised in making electric vehicles and charging stations cheaper, or buying electric buses or improving transit options in underserved communities. The latter option would also help improve air quality, an important co-benefit in communities that suffer from pollution the most. States have a year to work out the details and they’ll have no shortage of inspiration—and warning signs—to draw on.