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What Cap-and-Trade Money Looks Like on the Ground

The first carbon trading scheme in the U.S. is now a decade old. Here are some of the things it's done.

Carbon trading schemes are, in a word, controversial. New Jersey is fighting to exit from a regional carbon market in the northeastern U.S., and California is fighting against businesses who want to declare that state’s efforts an illegal tax. Elected officials worry about their potential to raise costs for consumers, while experts hem and haw over exactly how big an impact on greenhouse gas emissions can be fairly attributed to the setups.

But they do make a difference, at least at the ground level.

As the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — the carbon market in the northeast, and the first of its kind in the country — celebrates 10 years of existence, the advocacy group Environment America has released a report highlighting a series of case studies showing how funding from the project has led directly to benefits for people in the states involved.

As always, the benefits are somewhat complicated to quantify. Cap-and-trade schemes involve high-polluting companies paying for their emissions — so even as those payments go to help low-income families, there’s a chance that the carbon pricing leads utilities to raise consumers’ electricity rates.

But there are other benefits too. Cleaner air should mean fewer respiratory health problems. Efficiency upgrades, solar installations and other projects stir up local economic activity.

And then there’s the money savings inherent in so many carbon-reducing efforts.

An example in the report: Two Massachusetts towns, Swampscott and Wenham, managed to cut their power bills more than $100,000 per year by switching old light bulbs with LEDs. That’s a big deal for two small towns — especially Swampscott, where street lighting alone eats up 11.5 percent of the local government’s budget.

Together, the lighting projects have prevented 294 tons of carbon pollution from entering the atmosphere each year. That’s the same as taking about 62 passenger cars off the road, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Efficiency projects abounded throughout the report. In Maine, an efficiency utility helped a data center cool its equipment using the state’s frigid outdoor air during the colder months. In New Hampshire, rebates helped a beer brewery buy more efficient equipment in a new facility. In Connecticut, an efficiency fund helped a children’s hospital cut down on its refrigeration and air conditioning costs.

“These stories showcase how people, businesses and communities can participate in and benefit from work to protect our climate — and provide a glimpse of the future benefits the Northeast region could see under a sustained commitment to cutting dangerous carbon pollution,” the report reads.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.