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Solimar Research

Dump Your Carbon Elsewhere, EJ Advocates Urge

Mar 11, 2008

Just about everyone has assumed that a "cap and trade" mechanism would be part of the implementation of California's AB 32, the greenhouse gas emissions reduction law. But cap and trade may not come about without a big, and potentially very political, fight from environmental justice advocates.

Under a cap and trade system, the state would establish a maximum combined emission level of a greenhouse gas such as carbon dioxide. Polluters that come in under their allowance would then sell their credits to an entity that produces more than permitted. There's also the possibility that greenhouse gas emitters could buy offsets. Over time, the cap would get lower and lower. The concept is similar to the federal cap and trade system for sulfur dioxide, which affects more than 100 electricity generating plants around the country.

Recently, a group of 18 environmental justice organizations calling themselves the California Environmental Justice Movement announced that it was firmly opposed to cap and trade. Their concern is that heavy polluters in urban areas would simply buy their way out of new emissions restrictions. The issue isn't so much the greenhouse gases that, say, a refinery generates. Gases such as carbon dioxide are a global problem, not local. The EJ group's biggest concern is the "co-pollutants," such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, that nearly always accompany the carbon dioxide emissions. These co-pollutants contaminate the air in the neighborhood.

In other words, planting a forest in Canada or shutting down a factory in Idaho might offset the carbon dioxide produced by a refinery in Los Angeles. But those measures don't do anything about the soot, NOX, SOX (sulfur oxides) and other pollutants that residents of Wilmington have to inhale.

The EJ organization argues that cap and trade turns the air everyone breathes into a commodity that wealthy corporations then pay to pollute, at the expense of poor people. The group calls the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme a failure, arguing that it is establishing "carbon dumps" in poor and developing nations so that powerful companies and rich nations can continue polluting. Instead of mimicking the EU's venture, the EJ proponents argue, the state should tax greenhouse gas emissions.

Under AB 32, the Air Resources Board is required to consider "market mechanisms" for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and Gov. Schwarzenegger is an outspoken proponent of cap and trade. In a report to the Air Resources Board last year, the board's Market Advisory Committee endorsed the concept of cap and trade, but only if "localized effects or disproportionate impacts on low-income communities or communities already adversely affected by air pollution." A number of mainstream environmental groups, including the National Resources Defense Council, have endorsed at least the concept of cap and trade. For many businesses and political conservatives, market-based systems are the only acceptable way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

That's a lot of momentum for cap and trade. But the EJ groups have friends in high places. Two of the group's leaders, Jane Williams of California Communities Against Toxics and the California Environmental Rights Alliance's Angela Johnson Meszaros, are on the Air Resources Board's Environmental Justice Advisory Committee. That committee's recommendations will not be easy for the board or the governor to ignore.

More important is new leadership in the state Legislature. With a history of social justice activism, Assembly Speaker-to-be Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) will be the first African-American woman to serve as speaker. Senate President Pro-Tem-to-be Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) has cultivated an anti-business reputation as a defender of the working class. (He was a labor lawyer before becoming a state lawmaker.) Although they have not endorsed the California Environmental Justice Movement's cap and trade position, Bass and Steinberg are natural allies of the EJ group.

Thus, the road to a greenhouse gas emissions cap and trade system in California will not be smooth. It might even be a dead end.

- Paul Shigley