US Climate Bill - a start, but not yet enough

Feature story - April 1, 2009
There’s still a long way to go, but the draft energy and climate bill unveiled yesterday in the US Congress gives some idea of what American climate policy may look like in the coming years. The bill provides for strong long-term targets, efficiency legislation, a cap-and-trade system, and sets the goal that 25 per cent of US electricity must come from renewable energy by 2025.Time to break out the champagne? Not quite...

US Climate Policy may not be hell and high water any more. But how good is it?

The proposed efficiency standards are good and, as the experience of Japan and California shows, they work. By directing the EPA to establish regulation for refrigeration chemicals, cars, aviation and shipping, the bill could bring to many sectors the effective environmental governance they have previously lacked.

Minimum portfolio standards for electricity markets are another proven success that can now be taken up nationally. One of the most successful examples is the standard in Texas, a state now at the heart of the US wind industry. A long-term target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 83 per cent by 2050 is nothing to be sniffed at either, and brings the US in line with the long-term ambitions of many progressive nations.

In creating a range of effective policy tools the bill will give the US government the power it needs to take strong action on global warming. The question is, will it?

Not fast enough

Sadly, the short term targets aren't so good. When climate negotiators talk about cuts they mean cuts relative to 1990, the year specified in the Kyoto Treaty. Congressman Henry Waxman is talking about cuts relative to 2005, when emissions were much higher. If you convert the bill's domestic emissions cuts of 20 per cent by 2020 into '1990' emissions you get a cut of around 7 or 8 per cent.

These limited cuts are made even weaker by the provision in the bill for two billion tons of offsets. At first read, what this means in practice is that the US fossil fuel industry could continue to pump out CO2, unabated, for the next 20 years, and buy its way out of saving the climate by buying cheaper, lower-quality emissions reductions from elsewhere, instead of taking responsibility for reducing its own pollution.

That doesn't sound like progress to us.

Real emissions reductions better than offsets

The latest science is clear. The world needs to cut emissions far more quickly. To stop global warming, the world must end emissions from deforestation and industry. The developed world as a whole needs to achieve cuts of at least 40 per cent relative to 1990 levels by 2020.

Years of environmental neglect under George Bush mean that US emissions have skyrocketed, but even an achievable overall  US commitment of 25 per cent - with at least 12 per cent domestic cuts in fossil fuel use - would help put the developed world on the path to climate victory.

The bill offers up to 10 billion dollars to fund Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).  This is just a way to extend a business-as-usual approach where the polluter gets paid rather than punished - and paid, no less, with money taken from the American taxpayer.

Where do we go from here?

Climate champions in Congress are working to enact a climate change plan by the end of this year, ahead of the climate negotiations taking place in Copenhagen. To do that, the bill must first secure the support of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, then the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, the Senate needs to adopt its own version of the bill and pass it. Then the two bills will need to be reconciled.

That leaves plenty of scope for the bill to be changed, and here are the big changes that need to be made.

  • Increase the targets and ensure that at least 12 per cent of the emissions cuts come through reductions in domestic fossil fuel use
  • Drop the funding for CCS
  • Auction pollution permits, ensuring polluters pay and that revenues are used for climate and public benefit

If these improvements are made, President Obama can arrive in Copenhagen with a real opportunity to forge the global deal that ends global warming.

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