Lindsay McNamara, Columnist

Ideology: Environmentalist | Writing from: University of Delaware

In 1984, economic development, energy independence and jobs were the three major issues surrounding the U.S. economy. Today, in 2010, these same three issues remain salient. Little progress has been made without restricting carbon emissions, and with all the consequences of climate change, it is time for action. It is time to create a unified U.S. cap and trade program so that our carbon footprint decreases as much as it needs to. The longer it takes to implement a cohesive cap and trade program, the more drastic the cuts would have to be to make up for lost time and the subsequent amounts of carbon emitted into the atmosphere. Similar to cap and trade, the Clean Air Act passed in the 1970s, faced opposition from cornucopians, pundits and firms who feared for the economy. Few of the catastrophic negative effects that were projected from this piece of legislation even occurred. 

The Acid Rain Program, which was established under the 1990 amendment of the Clean Air Act, put in a place a cap and trade system to internalize the negative externalities associated with acid rain. According to recent reports by the EPA, the compliance cost of the cap and trade system is significantly lower than originally thought.  Reduction of the required SO2 emissions is now projected to cost one to two billion dollars per year, just a quarter of original estimates. The Acid Rain Program has had large environmental successes to boot, SO2 emissions from the electric power sector decreased from 15.7 million tons in 1990 to 10.2 million tons in 2005. A cap and trade system for carbon emissions in energy intensive sectors of the U.S. economy could have a similar success story with environmental protection and financial gain if implemented.

California, progressive as always, approved a cap and trade system on December 16. About 600 top industrial plants’ emissions will be regulated. If industries cannot reach the required emission cut, they’ll have to secure pollution allowances from the state or other emitters with excess.  California’s Air Resource Board approved some 3,000 pages of documentation outlining a three-year process with testimony from both industrial executives and environmentalists alike by a vote of 9 to 1. 

After the Midterm Elections, when Republicans gained control of the House and narrowed the Democrats’ Senate majority, President Obama said he doubts Congress will pass a cap and trade program until, at the earliest, 2013. Instead of waiting for action from Congress, New Mexico, the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec are looking to link up with California and the 10 states in the Northeast that make up the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to create a unified carbon market, according to Mary Nichols, chairman of California’s Air Resources Board.  The states and provinces considering an integrated cap and trade program make up about one-third of the U.S. and Canadian economy and may cover more than 800 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, about one-third the size of Europe’s cap and trade program.

Although jobs initially will be lost with a cap and trade system, the net gain is undeniable, as California has seen time and time again from their growing “green” economy sector. It is estimated that the current 8.5 million U.S. jobs in renewable energy and energy efficiency industries could grow to as many as 40 million by 2030. “Green collar” jobs include white and blue collar jobs like: engineers and scientists, but also urban planners, bike repairers, corporate social responsibility advisers and solar sales people. The green job sector will grow because renewable energy is more labor intensive than many other industries, especially fossil fuels. The Union of Concerned Scientists found that the wind power sector alone creates 2.4 times more jobs than coal or natural gas during plant construction and 1.5 times more jobs during long-term operations and maintenance. Americans with a high school education or less will be able to raise their standard of living through green employment. Energy efficiency and alternative energy industries offer four times more jobs for this group than fossil fuels.  

Source: http://www.sightline.org/maps/maps/cap-and-trade-map/medium

As seen in the map, more than half of North America’s population and economic activity represent an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through implementation of a cap and trade system. It is imperative that the rest of the U.S. and provinces in Canada follow suit and that they all work together to form a cooperative and unified carbon market. A national carbon limiting program would solidify a spot for North America alongside Europe among the world’s climate leaders working towards reducing human impact on the ecosystems of the planet. Not only will the planet be healthier, so will our economy in the long run through the growth of the green job sector. To develop a cap and trade program is to conserve and protect not only the environment, but our economy and North America’s position as an innovator in the global sphere.