A much-heralded plan to curb global warming emissions may do little for the environment: The caps it puts on greenhouse gases are already higher than what New Jersey pumps out.

One environmental activist says the public has been misled about what politicians say is a historic plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

“These guys in Trenton are just blowing smoke,” said Bill Wolfe, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group. “They’re getting credit for doing something for the environment when really they’re not doing anything.”

Legislation moving through Trenton would let New Jersey join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an effort by Northeastern states to cut emissions from power plants, a chief source of greenhouse gases. When the states approved it two years ago, supporters saw it as the best path toward getting what they really wanted: nationwide regulations to combat climate change.

The Northeast program calls for shaving warming pollution 10 percent below current levels by 2019.

The reductions, however, are based on average emissions in the states between 2000 and 2004. And emissions since then have already fallen well below that level, said Derek Murrow, policy director for Environment Northeast, a Connecticut group that studies environmental policy in the region.

When the caps take effect in 2009, they’re likely to be as much as 11 percent above existing emissions, Murrow said.

New Jersey’s 23 million-ton cap would be about 9 percent above recent levels, according to an analysis by the group last year. Maine’s cap would be 10 percent above current emissions, Murrow estimated; Connecticut’s, 11.

Vermont was left a whopping 70 percent cushion to account for power plant projects already in the pipeline when the agreement was reached, he estimated.

Scientists have said the nation as a whole will need much bigger cuts — 20 percent by 2020 and as much as 80 percent by 2050 — to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

The numbers aren’t final, Murrow cautioned. Emissions dropped in recent years partly because mild weather decreased the energy used for heating. There’s no telling if that trend will continue, he said.

Still, the states need to adjust the caps, he added, or take other steps to ensure power companies feel pressure to build cleaner plants or invest in energy conservation. “An inflated cap,” he said, “would allow them to avoid making changes.”

Officials in the 10-state compact seeking to cut emissions are already talking about the need to fix their leaky caps.

“That’s a concern we’ve heard and that’s something we will absolutely have to address in the future,” said Lisa Jackson, New Jersey’s environmental commissioner.

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