How Regional Carbon-Cutting Efforts Improve Public Health

By path2positive

Residents of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states are healthier these days, thanks to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).  According to a new, independent analysis of this nine-state cooperative effort, established in 2009 to reduce carbon emissions from the power sector, RGGI has benefited the climate and public health over the entire region, while also boosting states’ economies. 

RGGI, the first mandatory, market-based “cap and trade” program in the United States, represents a regional CO2 budget for Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. (Gov. Chris Christie pulled New Jersey out in 2011.)

The report, released last week by Abt Associates, determined that residents in this region are now suffering significantly fewer premature deaths, heart attacks, and respiratory illnesses due to improvements in air quality attributable to RGGI. These improvements including an estimated 300 to 830 lives saved; more than 8,200 asthma attacks avoided; 39,000 lost work days averted; and an average of $5.7 billion in health care savings. Neighboring Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., which are downwind of the RGGI states—and even New Jersey--shared in these benefits.  

Key Findings

Details of the key findings are summarized in the chart at right.

As the report explains, one of the reasons RGGI has helped to improve health as well as the environment is that fewer carbon emissions in the atmosphere has also meant fewer emissions of other air pollutants that cause respiratory and other illnesses. (These pollutants include carbon monoxide, lead, ground-level ozone, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter.)  Most of the benefits came from reducing smokestack emissions from older, coal-fired plants in just a few states.

Abt Associates notes, “While RGGI-driven health benefits are likely to level off in the future… the increasingly cleaner, more efficient electricity grid in the RGGI region will provide new opportunities for additional, substantial health benefits [a]s energy demand from other sectors – such as transportation and heating – shifts onto the cleaner grid .…”


Abt is a research firm focused on health, social, and environmental policy whose mission is “improving the quality of life and economic well-being of people worldwide.” To perform their assessment, they relied on peer-reviewed models and historical data from the U.S. Environmental Protection agency on electricity production, air-pollutant emissions, and public health indicators. They also looked at independent research reports on economics.

RGGI’s cap-and-trade scheme is similar to the federal Acid Rain Program established in 1990, credited with significantly reducing acid-rain-causing atmospheric sulfur dioxide from power plants. Each state is allotted a certain number of, basically, pollution permits. Each permit is equal to one short ton of C02. Regular auctions are held so that states that are able to make reductions beyond their allowances can sell their permits and those unable to meet their “caps” can buy more. In this way, the states collectively meet both their own caps and the regional cap on carbon, and emissions overall are reduced. The caps become progressively stricter: While the 2014 limit was 91 million tons, that figure will drop 2.5 percent each year until 2020, with a goal to reduce CO2 emissions to 45 percent below 2005 levels.

In addition, the auctions serve as a funding mechanism. The report calculates that since inception, RGGI raised almost $3 billion from the auction of carbon credits.  These proceeds are invested in clean energy and energy-efficiency programs, with a goal of building lower-carbon economies and creating more green jobs.


The recent RGGI study adds weight to the results of earlier ones, such as a 2015 study from Duke University that found the program was responsible for about half the region’s emissions reductions (the remainder were due to the 2009 recession, lower natural gas prices, and other environmental initiatives). It also found that CO2 emissions would have been almost 25 percent higher without RGGI. And according to a poll last summer by the Sierra Club, RGGI has strong public support in the states where it is in force—and respondents said they wanted emissions caps to drop even lower.

Some argue that greenhouse-gas trading serves to maintain our dependence on fossil-fuel energy and that that emissions reductions aren’t happening quickly enough to meet the goals set by international agreements. Others, such as businesses required to participate in California’s comprehensive carbon-trading market, view it as over-regulation.

 But one clear take-away of this report is that collaborative, regional efforts can be part of an effective strategy for protecting the climate and public health—with or without the imprimatur of the federal government. And it provides more evidence to share that action on climate is action on health.

ecoAmerica offers many tools for talking about the links between climate and health. Check out the Let’s Talk Health and Climate and 15 Steps to Create Effective Climate Communications guides on the Research page. And be sure to sign up for the upcoming Let’s Talk Communities and Climate webinar, scheduled for February 16.


Miranda Spencer is a freelance writer and editor specializing in environmental issues. If you have comments, questions, ideas, or would like to submit a blog of your own, feel free to contact her at


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