Cap, trade, emit, breathe

The Byron Sher Auditorium at the California Environmental Protection Agency headquarters transformed into a lively flurry of green last Wednesday morning. Dozens of activists and environmentalists, who arrived by bus from as far away as Los Angeles and the Bay Area, wore green shirts and held green signs that read “Cap-and-trade didn’t work in the EU.” Some even sported bandanas over their faces to symbolize the need for cleaner air.

At stake was a proposal to implement a cap-and-trade program in California, the first such plan in the nation, as a way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Cap-and-trade is part of Assembly Bill 32, or the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires the state to reduce its projected 2020 greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels.

CARB is charged with developing a plan for how the state will reach this goal; last week, they considered whether to implement the contentious cap-and-trade program, which was challenged in the courts by environmental groups in 2009 (they won) and currently is facing appeal.

California’s cap-and-trade plan would create a marketplace for greenhouse-gas emissions. It limits the amount companies can emit in a given region, but also provides allowances, or essentially permits to pollute, which are auctioned off. Companies that find ways to reduce emissions can sell allowances they no longer need to other companies.

CARB hopes that a cap-and-trade system will tackle 20 percent of the state’s overall carbon emissions.

And while some companies have balked at the plan, saying it will negatively impact business and growth, environmentalists have been even more dubious, arguing that cap-and-trade did not work in the European Union and will create heavy pockets of polluters. They also say CARB has not explored more sustainable alternatives, such as direct regulation or implementation of carbon-emission fees.

At the hearing, environmentalists were vocal and frank.

“It’s almost ludicrous to me that you are putting this forward as a solution in California,” argued Margaret Jordan of the Richmond Progressive Alliance.

“It’s been a little bit of an insulting process,” said Adrienne Blocke, senior attorney for Californians for a Better Environment, of the battle with the state over cap-and-trade.

Many activists spoke on behalf of communities such as Richmond, Arvin and Bakersfield, where poorer residents, family members and friends, suffer from asthma and allergies or are fighting cancer. In Wilmington, a poorer neighborhood near the Port of Los Angeles, residents live near five major refineries and argued that polluters need to be regulated, not allowed to buy carbon credits.

Jessica Tovar, member of Communities for A Better Environment, leads a “Toxic Tour” through similarly poor neighborhoods in nearby Richmond. She says that, while pollution mostly impacts low-income communities, it “does not see racial lines.”

“It’s coming to a city near you,” she said.

Still, at the end of the day, CARB unanimously approved the cap-and-trade plan. That said, they also voted 9-0 to look at more eco-friendly alternatives.