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Will California's Cap and Trade Be Fair? | The Nation

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Will California's Cap and Trade Be Fair?

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Environmental justice groups argue that their communities have a lot at stake if cap and trade fails to curb climate change. Study after study shows that poor communities and people of color are likely to face the earliest and worst impacts of climate change. In Los Angeles, African-Americans are nearly twice as likely to die during a heat wave as the average resident, in part because they more often lack access to air conditioning. “[Cap and trade] won’t fix the climate…. It won’t work, and it will violate environmental rights,” said Greg Karras, senior scientist at CBE, in comments to the Air Resources Board. “Please, we urgently ask you…do not adopt this flawed, illegal, unjust plan.”

This story was made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

About the Author

Madeline Ostrander
Madeline Ostrander
Madeline Ostrander is a contributing editor to YES! Magazine and a freelance writer based in Seattle.

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Treating carbon like a global commodity, without regard to the source of the pollution, sounds especially dubious to people in places like Wilmington—after all, greenhouse gases are produced by the same polluters who foul their air and leave behind blight, waste and ill health. Wilmington suffers from “a legacy of land-use practices that didn’t adequately control the development of industrial sources and their relationship to residential areas,” says Alice Kaswan, an expert on air regulations and climate change. Existing air regulations gauge pollution over an entire region and thus miss the concentration of pollution in places like Wilmington. “Or they’re facility by facility,” adds Manuel Pastor, a scholar at the University of Southern California who studies the social inequalities of pollution. “So what that doesn’t account for is these neighborhoods where multiple uses are clustered.” 

Addressing climate change could transform places like Wilmington: it means reorganizing transportation systems and revolutionizing industry, production and the energy economy. In 2010, Pastor co-wrote an analysis of 146 of the state’s biggest power plants, cement plants and oil refineries, which together contribute a significant percentage of carbon emissions. He combined data on greenhouse gases and other air pollution and mapped out who lived next to the dirtiest industries in the state, arriving at what he called the “pollution disparity index.” He and his co-authors developed a ranking system that showed which polluters were the most unfair—pumping the most toxic air into communities that were densely populated, low-income and disproportionately inhabited by people of color. On the top ten list were the five refineries that surround Wilmington as well as the notorious Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, which is currently under criminal investigation. The researchers’ conclusion: contrary to the theory behind cap and trade, not all carbon trades are created equal. In 2012, Pastor and economist James Boyce published a similar analysis examining more than 1,500 polluters all over the United States. They found that greenhouse gas reductions in some locations would reduce air-quality problems and improve residents’ health far more than in others. The report cites estimates that the health effects of cutting industrial carbon emissions are actually more valuable, at $49 per ton of carbon dioxide, than the cost of allowances and offsets.

Pastor says he and his co-authors are “not die-hard opponents of cap and trade.” (He notes that a carbon fee, which would impose a cost on carbon emissions without the trading and is favored by some environmental justice groups, could lead to the same disparities.) He suggests putting a steeper price on the carbon generated by greenhouse gas polluters who rank high in “pollution disparity.” Or the state could restrict trading for those polluters who are wreaking the most havoc on people’s health.

While Pastor and his colleagues believe it’s unlikely that carbon trading would create more “hot spots,” or places with highly localized pollution, it could “make [existing] inequities worse,” says Rachel Morello-Frosch, an author of the 2010 report. For instance, air quality could improve in rural areas and remain poor in urban areas, particularly in neighborhoods next to a refinery or cement plant. Berkeley economist David Roland-Holst’s model predicts that, if industries meet the majority of cap-and-trade requirements through offsets, the state could see an additional 2,300 tons of smog-producing nitrogen oxides and 600 tons of soot by 2020. According to a calculation by the Union of Concerned Scientists, as much as 80 percent of the reductions under cap and trade could come from offsets. Offset-trading groups counter that this is unlikely given how few offsets are currently available on the market.

Cap-and-trade proponents often note that the acid rain program didn’t cause hot spots in communities of color. In a widely circulated 2011 study, researcher Evan Ringquist found that acid rain trades made the air better for many African-Americans and Latinos. But the benefits weren’t fairly distributed, either: there was more air pollution in “poorly educated communities.” Another report published that year found that under cap and trade, sulfur dioxide pollution traveled from rural to urban areas, where it could enter the lungs of a larger number of people.

In September, the Climate Policy Initiative published a tentative analysis that “suggests air quality around refineries in the EU would have improved more than the average” because of carbon trading, while the Environmental Defense Fund, a staunch supporter of cap and trade, reports that some California refineries are already upgrading equipment and curbing air toxins because of the regulation. Manuel Pastor has questioned the CPI’s findings: the data were influenced by the slow economy, and the study doesn’t probe whether the pollution clean-up happens where it’s needed most. “But it does open up the possibility of positive environmental justice results,” he says.

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