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News Opinion Editorial

Greener power

For all the hysteria generated by climate-change deniers over how reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be disastrous for consumers and the economy, Maryland and the other eight states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative are demonstrating that it isn't. The decision announced today to lower the cap on carbon dioxide by nearly 45 percent in those states should send a clear message to Washington that cap-and-trade can work.

Since 2009, Maryland has been part of the RGGI coalition that limits greenhouse gas emissions by coal-fired power plants. The plants' owners must either find ways to reduce emissions or purchase emission allowances at auction. Revenue from those auctions, in turn, is used to encourage renewable energy and offer some financial relief to low-income ratepayers.

Lowering the regional cap from 165 million tons of carbon dioxide to 91 million tons by 2020 will likely cause many plants to take needed actions to comply with the tougher standards, such as switching from coal to natural gas or finding other efficiencies. In turn, the new cap is likely to raise the cost of allowances so that states will be able to invest more money in renewable energy.

In Maryland, which is responsible for about 22 percent of the greenhouse gases in the coalition, that will translate to an additional reduction of 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide below the existing limits, the equivalent of taking 600,000 cars off the road. It will also mean hundreds of millions of dollars invested in green energy and energy-related aid to consumers.

Will it cause electricity rates to rise? Not by much. The program has had a negligible effect on rates so far, and the new rules are expected to increase monthly electricity bills by less than 1 percent. That's due, in part, to the impact of rising U.S. natural gas production on the market, and that's good news for consumers and the economy.

This sort of mutually beneficial, market-based problem-solving is how RGGI was first sold to consumers a half-decade ago. Reducing the cap keeps the program relevant. And it positions Maryland and its fellow RGGI member states — Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont — for a clean energy future.

Less reliance on coal to generate electricity also means cleaner air for breathing. Power plant emissions are a major source of mercury, lead, arsenic, dioxin and other harmful chemicals that are released into the atmosphere when coal is burned.

Climate change poses a serious threat, not just to the handful of states involved in this modest effort but to the U.S. and the world. That Congress has shown such reluctance to do much about the looming disaster of man-made global warming does it no credit. In his recent inaugural address, President Barack Obama pledged to take up the issue in his second term, but whether he can get much of a remedy past conservative deniers in Congress remains to be seen.

Just this week, it was widely observed that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a leading candidate to be the Republican nominee for president in 2016, is among those in his party who deny the connection between burning fossil fuels and changes in climate. Meanwhile, a recent Duke University poll showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans support regulating greenhouse gases from power plants — although the same survey found Democrats continue to take the climate change threat more seriously than Republicans do.

A cap-and-trade program similar to RGGI would seem like the least Washington could do to begin to address a problem that could make Sandy and the tens of billions of dollars in the superstorm inflicted on the East Coast seem like a walk in the park. Rising sea levels alone could wreak havoc on coastal communities, while climate-related droughts and severe weather could greatly reduce farm output.

There's little doubt in the broader scientific community over the harm caused by greenhouse gases and the risk the planet faces from climate change. Now, there should be just as little uncertainty over whether the cap-and-trade remedy is viable, because RGGI states are proving it works.

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      Editor's note: This editorial has been updated to reflect that Resources for the Future is not a part of Stanford University. The Sun regrets the error.