Pennsylvania is on the edge of new innovations in how we address climate change. For far too long, we have lagged behind neighboring states who have entered into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Now, after over a year of listening to stakeholders and policy experts, the state Department of Environmental Protection is about to release its final rule that would allow our commonwealth to participate in this successful interstate program. I urge all Pennsylvanians to support our entrance into RGGI so that our communities can finally reap the health and economic benefits that this initiative has to offer.
The stakes are high if we don’t take action. According to the 2021 American Lung Association’s “State of the Air Report,” more than 40% of Americans — over 135 million people — are living in places with unhealthy levels of ozone and particle pollution. This disproportionately impacts people of color, who are over three times more likely to be breathing the most polluted air. These conditions can lead to asthma, lung disease, and other serious health issues that put the health and safety of Pennsylvanians at risk. This is especially true in urban areas like Philadelphia, which was ranked in the top 25 most polluted cities in America.
As a Philadelphia City Council member, I find this deeply troubling. I am concerned about the health of my constituents and how this could impact generations of Philadelphians, notably our minority communities. And I am not the only one. A recent poll released by Clean Jobs for Pennsylvania confirms that an overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians (73%) are concerned about the future negative impacts of climate change on their children and grandchildren.
Philadelphia communities, like many communities across the commonwealth, are facing health issues because of breathing dirty air. Thankfully, RGGI can help alleviate the conditions putting so many people at risk. Under this program, Pennsylvania’s largest power plants would buy allowances to account for the carbon they emit. Those payments (which would generate an estimated $300 million in proceeds for the commonwealth in the first year alone) would then be invested into helping the communities impacted by power plant emissions and go toward developing new innovations in the clean energy sector.
In my various roles — including as advisory board member of Clean Jobs for Pennsylvania, chair of the Philadelphia Gas Commission, president of the Pennsylvania Municipal League, and a Philadelphia City Council member — I recognize that this transition cannot be attained without considering the economic impact to low-income households. Philadelphia has one of the highest poverty rates of large cities in the nation, nearly 25%, with many families living paycheck to paycheck. We cannot leave these people behind in pursuit of clean energy. Fortunately, RGGI provides an opportunity to invest in the clean energy sector without raising prices.
When asked if they would support a clean energy standard in Pennsylvania if it increased their electric bills by less than $5 a month, 65% of all Pennsylvanians surveyed said yes. While this support speaks volumes, it would not be necessary under the RGGI program. In other RGGI states, many electric bills have actually gone down since joining the program. Lawmakers have the power to allocate a portion of RGGI proceeds in Pennsylvania to offset even small price increases among low-income families. This enables us to pursue progress without putting an undue financial burden on low-income households and Pennsylvanians everywhere.
People in the commonwealth are rightfully concerned about climate change and how time is running out to reverse our current trajectory. It is not too late to enter into RGGI and start seeing these benefits. But if we do not act urgently, the clock may run out. With this in mind, I call on our state leaders to look toward the future and support our entrance into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative for the well-being of their families and their communities.
Derek Green is a councilmember at-large on Philadelphia City Council and an advisory board member with the Clean Jobs for Pennsylvania coalition.