Written by Johaan Abraham
States across the US are pioneering innovative strategies to combat carbon emissions and forge a more sustainable future. Of these endeavors, one of the most notable is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI): a collaborative effort among 12 states in the US to reduce carbon emissions from the power sector. Every three years, Strategic Funding Plans are created to allocate funds from RGGI participation toward projects designed to help meet each state’s climate, clean energy, and equity goals. Recently, The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA), and the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities innovated to guide sustainable investments from 2023-2025 by using a unique digital media platform that gathered relevant insights from residents to optimize resource allocation. This article highlights the success of this approach and key learnings paving the way for a sustainable future by empowering constituents as strategic decision-makers.
A Voice For The People
RGGI utilizes a cap-and-trade system, commonly known as a “cap-and-invest” framework. States establish emission limits (caps) for in-state power plants, gradually lowering them to decrease emissions. To comply, power plants must obtain emission allowances, which are permits to emit a specific amount of CO2. Some allowances are auctioned by states, and the resulting revenue is channeled into investments and projects focused on clean energy and climate optimization.
Guiding Jersey’s approach to these investments is an innovative digital insights platform that amplifies public engagement and harnesses the collective intelligence of residents. Spearheaded by a local research group at Princeton University, the “All Our Ideas” open-source platform showcases the power of decentralized decision-making. New Jersey’s Office of Innovation collaborated with local state agencies and utilized this technology to empower citizens to shape the state’s climate investments. By leveraging the tool and adapting it for these efforts, a unique channel was unlocked to allow insights to guide proper funding allocation.
The heart of the platform lies in its ability to solicit public input on prioritizing climate change mitigation solutions. Participants engaged in pairwise comparisons, evaluating two climate solutions at a time. This iterative process, driven by the participants’ preferences, culminated in the ranking of solutions based on their relative importance. Participants also had the liberty to submit their own unique ideas. Because the order of item pairings is randomized, it also circumvents organized attempts to influence outcomes.This democratic approach was adopted to ensure that final funding decisions accurately mirror the desires and aspirations of the New Jersey populace.
The Data Shaping The Future
The insights garnered from this digital campaign paint a vivid picture of New Jerseyans’ aspirations for a greener and more sustainable future. The results are organized into five key categories: buildings, energy grid, transportation, carbon sequestration, and organic waste. The public’s resounding call for renewable energy solutions in the built environment emerges as a cornerstone, encompassing improved energy efficiency in city blocks, solar panel canopies in parking lots, and support for electric heating and cooling systems. Transportation emerges as another focal point, with an emphasis on expanding public transit, electrifying school buses, and promoting the adoption of electric vehicles. Carbon sequestration gains significant traction, with reforestation, wetland and forest restoration, and carbon storage initiatives finding favor. The imperative to manage organic waste is evident, with support for anaerobic digester systems, cold storage for farmers and anti-hunger organizations, and on-site composting capacity.
The Garden State’s Triumph
Local response to the platform was exceptional. The tool enabled the public to vote on a diverse array of over 100 potential funding concepts designated for RGGI investments, with an aggregate of more than 241,000 votes cast by approximately 6,000 New Jersey residents. Noteworthy proposals included “wetland and forest restoration in areas where NJDEP has bought out homes damaged or destroyed in major flood events” and “funding projects that improve city blocks by adding trees, improving energy efficiency, and bringing properties up to code.” These perspectives formed the basis of the 2023 Scoping Document and the strategic plan. After taking time to explore the optional demographic survey responses from 1,945 participants, it is worth noting that there was adequate coverage of the population across New Jersey’s municipalities. Based upon my assessment of these insights, it seems clear that there is room to improve future efforts focused on Black, Indigenous, and younger (under 25) New Jersey residents in particular. Although conscientious outreach to under-resourced communities underscored a commitment to equity, ensuring that those disproportionately affected by carbon emissions are financially prioritized is crucial.
New Jersey’s voyage towards a greener future is one of shared responsibility and shared vision, and the utilization of this innovative digital insights platform is a commitment to data-driven decision-making. As Jersey’s state agencies translate these insights into actionable initiatives from 2023-2025, leaders across the region should assess whether this use case is applicable to their respective RGGI initiatives, enabling research-backed insights to lead our sustainable future. Together, through collaboration and innovation, a greener tomorrow awaits.
To explore the comprehensive results of this engagement and stay informed about upcoming climate change investments, visit the RGGI website and subscribe to updates from the NJDEP and NJEDA. For further insights into harnessing collective intelligence for policy enhancement, visit SmarterNJ, an initiative of the New Jersey State Office of Innovation. Johaan Abraham is a multimedia consultant and writer covering digital innovation and consumer behavior.