Four winners and two losers from the 2019 US carbon pricing movement

It was a roller coaster year for the carbon pricing movement in the United States. A record-number of states (16!) introduced carbon pricing legislation, including first-timers like Maine and Montana. However, legislative milestones that were largely expected to be achieved, like Oregon passing cap-and-invest, and Virginia joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, faltered at the last second. 

On the campaign trail, we’ve seen carbon pricing become a mainstream, popular proposal to help curb climate change. Most 2020 Democrats have endorsed carbon pricing in one form or another, including Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Jay Inslee, Andrew Yang, Cory Booker, and others. But in the present day, a climate denier continues to occupy the White House, and overall greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise.  

Progress has been made, and in many ways, the conversation has been pushed forward. Policymakers are beginning to understand that instead of subsidizing the dirty fuels that are largely responsible for climate change, we need to account for their true cost to society. In turn, membership in our State Carbon Pricing Network, a community of advocates, policymakers, and legislators looking to put a price on pollution in their state, has jumped from 300 to nearly 1500 members — in a matter of months. 

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a time where touting progress is enough. We must become compelled by a newfound sense of urgency that as a society, we simply have not possessed. As glaciers retreat and extreme weather patterns like heat waves become more ubiquitous, we can no longer turn a blind eye to the climate crisis or cast it as an issue of the future. The science has unequivocally shown that we must stop pumping heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. We need to incentivize an economic transition toward clean and renewable forms of energy. That’s where carbon pricing comes in. 

Below, I’ve selected several winners and losers from the 2018-2019 legislative session in an attempt to highlight the peaks and valleys the carbon pricing movement has experienced this year. (Note: a lot more happened in the carbon pricing world this year than could be captured in this blogpost, so this is just a handful of anecdotes and trends, not a year-long review.



1. Student activism 

Students across the country — in blue and red states alike — have worked relentlessly to push forward strong climate action and carbon pricing legislation. A lot of that has to do with the work of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led political movement advocating for a Green New Deal to combat climate change. Sunrise, intensely supported by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and other progressives, has truly helped shape the national climate conversation. 

More specific to the carbon pricing movement, Our Climate has empowered young people to educate the public and elected officials about science-based, equitable climate policy solutions. The organization has played a pivotal role in helping youth catalyze action in an effective and informed way, and has mobilized students to advocate for carbon pricing in a range of states, including Florida, New York, Washington, Oregon, and Nebraska (shoutout to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln students who have helped propel climate action to the forefront of the state’s legislative conversation). 

Students working independently of these larger national organizations have also taken a lead on carbon pricing. In New Jersey, for example, students from across the state have been working on developing a “carbon cashback” policy that would rebate revenue from a fee on carbon pollution back to households. In Oregon, students rallied tirelessly in the face of devastating Republican opposition, up until the very end

In New Mexico, Santa Fe Prep students, led by a seventeen year old, helped pass a memorial to study state-level carbon pricing last year. Climate XChange conducted that study, and this year, Santa Fe Prep students worked with Sen. William Soules to help introduce a carbon pricing bill (SB 393) in the legislature. While that bill was ultimately tabled after a tied vote in the state’s most conservative committee, the whole saga signified the vital climate leadership students from all pockets of the country have exhibited this year. 

2. Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)

RGGI, the cap-and-trade program regulating the electric sector emissions of nine Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, continued to expand this year. After an eight year hiatus, New Jersey formally rejoined the program in June under the leadership of Gov. Phil Murphy (D).  

RGGI experienced a successful year beyond just New Jersey’s entry. The fact that the program has now been active for over a decade with no major hiccups is a tremendous feat in itself. It has served as a consistent revenue stream for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs for its member states, and served as a model for other proposed regional cap-and-trade programs to look to. 

In its first 32 auctions, RGGI generated member states more than $2.5 billion in revenue. In 2016 alone, RGGI investments contributed to $1.7 billion in lifetime energy bill savings, and helped prevent the emissions of 6.4 million tons of carbon emissions, the equivalent of 1.2 million cars taken off the road. Those numbers don’t even take into account indirect benefits that may occur as a result of RGGI’s cap and market signal. While not exclusively due to RGGI, across the region carbon emissions have dropped more than 35% since the program’s launch. 

RGGI is not perfect by any means, but as states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic work to cap transportation-sector emissions, it’s continued to serve as an example of how states can collaborate and unify on climate action and carbon pricing. 

3. Business support for carbon pricing 

In May, business leaders from across the country lobbied the federal government to put a price on carbon. These businesses, mobilized by Ceres, American Sustainable Business Council, and a number of other organizations, represented a range of industries with over $2.5 trillion in assets and over 2.8 million employees around the world. As renewable energy becomes more cost-effective and the effects of climate change more severe, expect corporations to continue pushing for a price on carbon.

In Massachusetts, the Climate Action Business Association (CABA), a membership-based organization that helps local businesses take targeted action on climate change (and a project of Climate XChange), has mobilized business support on carbon pricing. This year, more than 175 Bay State businesses signed onto CABA’s Carbon Pricing Action Letter, representing virtually all sectors of the economy. CABA businesses will continue to play a pivotal role in moving the needle on smart climate policy in Massachusetts. 

4. Leadership from state legislators 

In 2018-2019, we saw tremendous courage and leadership from lawmakers across the country who introduced carbon pricing in states where it has never been introduced before. In Montana, Representative Mary Ann Dunwell (D) introduced carbon pricing despite strong opposition from the state’s oil and gas industries. In Pennsylvania, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D) and Rep. Chris Rabb (D) put forward co-sponsorship memos for carbon pricing legislation slated to be introduced this upcoming year. In Massachusetts, Rep. Jen Benson’s carbon pricing legislation gained 108 co-sponsors, more than any other climate and energy bill at the State House. These leaders, and countless others, will play a critical role in shaping the carbon pricing conversation going forward. 


1. The GOP 

While groups like Citizens Climate Lobby and others have made strides in promoting bipartisan engagement on carbon pricing, for the most part Republicans lawmakers and the GOP have opposed common-sense climate policies. 

This session, the most explicit manifestation of this opposition was in Oregon, where GOP Senators notoriously walked out in opposition to the state’s well-crafted cap-and-invest legislation. That walkout, which captured national media attention, highlighted long-standing tensions between the state’s two political parties and the unwillingness of the GOP to support much-needed climate action. The Republican Senators, hiding out in Idaho and Montana, ultimately helped kill the legislation, which was largely expected to pass. Sen. Brian Boquist (R) threatened Oregon State Police’s superintendent, saying “Send bachelors and come heavily armed. I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon.” While Gov. Kate Brown has pledged to push forward cap-and-invest, it’s not yet clear if anything more can be done this year.  

This stark partisan divide is not unique to the Beaver State. At the federal level, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (HR 763) — a well-designed attempt to reach members of Congress on both sides of the aisle — has gained 58 co-sponsors, but only one of these is Republican. (To learn more about this federal legislation, check out Climate XChange’s June webinar). 

Furthermore, in the 16 states where carbon pricing was introduced this session, not one Republican state legislator co-signed a piece of legislation. Let that sink in — more than 30 bills were introduced across the country seeking to price pollution, but not a single GOP member could get behind any of these efforts. If we are going to curb emissions and avoid the worst impacts of climate change, that has to change — fast. 

2. Our Planet

Rising US greenhouse gas emissions have immense global consequences. As we let partisan strife stall climate action in the United States, our planet has begun to gravely suffer from the crisis’s worst effects. 

In July, the United Nations warned that one climate crisis disaster now occurs every week. These disasters have been immensely consequential. Three pacific islands tragically disappeared in the last year, and as sea levels continue to rise, more are likely on their way out. Deadly cyclones hit Mozambique, historic droughts plagued India, and Russian cities are choking under smoke from massive Siberian wildfires. Estimates put the global cost of climate-related disasters at $520 billion a year. These extreme weather events are all exacerbated by the climate crisis.                               

We must stop talking about future generations, about our kids and grandkids, and act swiftly for the millions who are already suffering — and dying — from the worst effects of climate change. States, it’s your opportunity to take a lead on the most critical crisis of our time, protect our planet and its most vulnerable populations, and put a price on carbon.