RGGI Explained: Q&A with Sarah Murdock

December 17, 2008 marked the United States’ second auction of carbon dioxide allowances as part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

Sarah Murdock, climate change manager for The Nature Conservancy, explains RGGI’s role in the fight against climate change.
"Not only does RGGI provide a framework for reducing greenhouse gases, the revenues generated by the auctions will support other climate-related initiatives, like energy efficiency and renewable energy development."

Sarah Woodhouse Murdock, climate change manager for The Nature Conservancy.

Why is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – or “RGGI” – considered such a milestone?

Sarah Murdock:

RGGI is redefining the way America approaches climate change. Climate change is the greatest threat to us and our natural areas over the next century. If we don’t act now, we will leave a much larger problem to our children.

The good news is that if we join together to take action to mitigate climate change, we can reduce its impact on us and on future generations. Rhode Island and the other nine states that are participating in RGGI have done just that: they have agreed to set a limit – and ultimately reduce – the amount of carbon dioxide their power generators emit.

How does RGGI help them do that?

Sarah Murdock:

RGGI is a market-based program. Through a series of auctions, RGGI sells credits to power generators. Each credit is worth one ton of carbon dioxide. Power generators must purchase a credit for each ton they emit. The idea is that by requiring power plants to buy credits, their operators will have a financial incentive to reduce emissions.

What happens if a power plant doesn’t use all the credits they purchased? Or if a plant emits more carbon dioxide than its credits allow?

Sarah Murdock:

Generators that cut emissions below their limits — through measures like energy conservation and investments in renewable energy — can then sell the credits they have not used to other generators. On the other hand, if they emit more carbon than they have credits for, they must pay a fine.

Where does the money raised through the auction go?

Sarah Murdock:

That’s another great thing about RGGI. Not only does it provide a framework for reducing greenhouse gases, the revenues generated by the auctions will support other climate related initiatives, like energy efficiency and renewable energy development.

These investments in turn will lead to even further emissions reductions. And investment in energy efficiency will bring the greatest energy savings to consumers. It’s a win-win for everybody.

Some states — like Connecticut — are using a portion of the revenue for climate change adaptation.

What’s that?

Sarah Murdock:

Adaptation is the effort to protect nature’s infrastructure in the face of climate change, which is already affecting our lives and the places we live.

Even with immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the effects of the carbon already in the atmosphere will continue for decades to come. Our own ability to resist climate change impacts is linked to the health of the natural world, as we all depend on nature and the services it provides.

Can you give an example of adaptation?

Sarah Murdock:

Salt marshes are an excellent natural resource. They provide a natural buffer to storm damage and floods, and also deliver nutrients for native plants, fish and wildlife. Keeping our salt marshes healthy and functioning will improve their ability to absorb storm surges, which are expected to intensify with climate change.

Another example is managing our forests to make the best use of their capacity to absorb or sequester carbon dioxide. At the same time, these forests are acting as “nature’s highways” to help wildlife to migrate to new habitats.

So we’ve got RGGI in Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. What’s next?

Sarah Murdock:

This series of auctions is the first of its kind in the U.S. They will be watched closely around the country as a potential model for a national program. We could see the rest of the country following this example, which would be a huge step toward emissions reductions.

About the Interviewee
Sarah Woodhouse Murdock serves as a Senior Policy Advisor on the Climate Change Initiative team spending her time focused on policy, advocacy, communications, education related activities and executing projects that inform our policy work.

For the past ten years, Ms. Woodhouse Murdock served as a consultant working with environmental and energy clients to develop strategic solutions to government, regulatory and community outreach challenges.

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