Economic Growth and Emission Reductions Go Hand-in-Hand in the Northeast


Remember the spotted owl?

Back in the early 1990s, the spotted owl was the symbol of the supposed conflict between “jobs and the environment.” The listing of the Northern spotted owl as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act triggered a fierce conflict between those who wanted to protect the bird and those who wanted to cut down the old growth forests where the owl makes its home.

The spotted owl conflict helped create a frame that has shaped (or, IMHO, distorted) environmental debates ever since: protecting the environment inevitably harms the economy.

We know, of course, that the reality is more complicated. Damaging the environment often inflicts real economic damage. People exposed to air pollution get sick and miss work more often. The loss of wetlands increases the risk of damage from flooding. And so on. Meanwhile, efforts to improve the environment often spark innovation and new economic activity.

Our latest report, A Record of Leadership: How Northeastern States Are Cutting Pollution and Building a Clean Economy puts yet another nail in the coffin of the “jobs versus the environment” frame. It shows that the Northeastern states that are part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) – the nation’s first cap-and-trade program for global warming pollution – have consistently outpaced the rest of the country in both emission reductions and economic growth.

According to the report, the 10 RGGI states have cut carbon dioxide emissions from energy use 20 percent faster than the rest of the United States between 2000 and 2009, even as their economies grew 87 percent faster than the rest of the U.S.

The region’s emission reductions are no accident – they are the result of a decade’s worth of forward-thinking, collaborative efforts among the states, led by governors of both political parties. Northeast states were the first to adopt mandatory limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, the first to form an international partnership to set emission reduction goals, among the first to require cleaner cars, and the first to implement cap-and-trade.

It would be exciting to be able to report that the region’s emission reduction efforts were the cause of its greater-than-average economic growth. Alas, we can’t go that far. The data do demonstrate, however, that actions to reduce global warming pollution are not necessarily inconsistent with continued economic growth. 

There are a lot of people in the Northeast who deserve recognition for their role in moving the region toward a clean economy – local activists fighting dirty power plants, open-minded business leaders, policy experts, and government officials. The region’s governors – including Republican governors such as George Pataki of New York – were critical contributors as well.

But resting on our laurels would be a mistake. The Northeast remains nearly entirely dependent on fossil fuels from other countries and other regions for our energy. Global warming continues to pose a serious threat to the region’s future. There are still tremendous opportunities for clean energy development that have yet to be tapped.

The experience of the last decade shows that the Northeast should seize these opportunities with the confidence that doing so will not risk the region’s economic health, and may even help sustain it. A clean environment and a vibrant economy can go hand-in-hand. The Northeast is showing the nation and the world how it is done.