Innovating Our Way to National GHG Reductions

Innovating Our Way to National GHG Reductions

By Lauren Hubbell ’14 and Danny Lapin ‘14

Dr. Dallas Burtraw, Darius Gaskins Senior Research Fellow at Resources for the Future

The Clean Air Act is vibrant and alive, even as its milestone provisions are decades old. Its regulatory clout is still felt across the political frontier of the nation. The question of the day is: how can the Clean Air Act effectively regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions? At the recent National Climate Seminar,  Dr. Dallas Burtraw, Darius Gaskins Senior Research Fellow at Resources for the Future, provided his insights into how federal and state governments can work together to achieve GHG reductions.

With growing public awareness over the last two years, the issue of climate change has been “too hot to handle” for Congress and the federal government. Each proposal to set binding targets for reductions in GHG’s has been met with a litany of arguments against the inequity of such targets. A nationwide reduction target would disproportionately affect some communities and industries more so than others. To this equity problem, Dr. Burtraw may have a solution.

Burtraw has dedicated his career to infusing incentive-based approaches into existing
environmental regulations. In particular, Burtraw is interested in introducing cost-effective
policy mechanisms into the Clean Air Act. This past Wednesday, Burtraw explained how these mechanisms can achieve federal goals in GHG reductions.

“Flexibility and Stringency Joined at the Hip”

It is clear that stringent federal standards for GHG emissions are needed. In the words of the President during his acceptance speech, national security may be “weakened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” As such, it is important to avail to states the myriad of ways available to them to adapt and benefit from enactment of aggressive, federal standards. Under the Clean Air Act, states are provided the flexibility to implement their own plans to meet standards set by federal government. States and localities have responded with the creation GHG reduction programs, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and the Regional Clean Air Incentives Market (RECLAIM). These policies have developed carbon pricing systems, such as trade-able carbon permitting, that reward the development of abatement technology and promote a culture of consistent reduction in carbon emissions. This process comes full circle when a particular state or region is able to reduce their GHG emissions in a way, which is economically viable and competes for national recognition, as a lead for other states to follow.

While these programs are examples of Burtraw’s vision at work, the regulatory might of the Clean Air Act has not been utilized to its maximum potential. Currently, states have resisted greater GHG-associated regulations from federal government even though they provide states with the opportunity for action and mobilization. Powerful lobbies within states have stalled the regulatory process by developing new ways to circumvent current regulations. This compels federal government to adopt stricter regulations, which limit these loopholes. While imposing strict federal regulations may appear draconian in nature, Burtraw stresses the need to view these regulations as an investment opportunity for firms to develop abatement technologies and move towards more renewable sources of energy.

The interchange between state and federal agencies regarding effective mechanisms for
GHG emissions reductions is a very slow process. While this process is gaining momentum, something else must be done. Burtraw challenged us to think outside the environmental policy box: what new regulatory strategies can localities, states, or regions implement to meet strict federal GHG standards without compromising their economic security? As students and as professionals, we should work together to develop innovative new policies around which state agencies can mobilize and facilitate change. The academic community consistently provides a host of versatile and diverse, policy recommendations that are rarely seen by state and federal agencies. The time is ripe for substantive climate policy.

Burtraw made a comment that particularly resonated with us.  He said that state and federal agencies should maintain a steady dialogue with the academic community to produce innovative policy solutions to our nations’ environmental problems. Efficient implementation of the Clean Air Act can create a positive domino effect that permeates across other environmental sectors, through new provisions and implementation schemes. Federal regulation should not be received as a tool of oppression but rather as a tool for reform. Let’s terraform the United States of America with an emphatic climate initiative!

To listen to Dr. Dallas Burtraw on the National Climate Seminar, as well as other speakers, please visit our website at

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