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Copenhagen Talks Better Off Without US Version of Climate Action

If conventional media wisdom is to be believed, the admission of Carol Browner, President Obama’s top climate and energy adviser in the White House, in early October that there will be no climate legislation coming out of Congress this year pretty much dooms the upcoming UN climate talks in Copenhagen. Yet, for all the buildup, public hand-wringing and carefully timed statements about how US progress on climate legislation - or lack of it - could make or break the December summit, it might turn out to be a good thing that the climate bills now making their way through Congress (at least in their present iterations), won't pollute the shores of Copenhagen.  

Of the bills being debated, massaged and re-worded into submission on Capitol Hill, the now infamous Waxman-Markey bill passed by the House of Representatives last summer is illustrative of the point.  

"The Waxman-Markey architecture brings thousands of big emitters such as power plants and industries into the trading system, opening the floodgates of complexity," writes author and Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project William S. Becker. The progressive Breakthrough Institute seems to agree with that assessment, estimating that under Waxman-Markey, emissions could continue at their current business-as-usual rate through 2030. "Even if they utilized just a fraction of available offsets each year," observe the Institute's Jesse Jenkins, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, "US firms would not be required to reduce their own emissions until as late as 2030 or beyond." 

"Originally, the Obama administration counted on $80 billion a year from the government's sale of emissions credits. To win over industry, Waxman-Markey gives the credits away for free. Poof! There goes the revenue," wrote the not-particularly-progressive Rich Lowry this summer in his syndicated column. "The bill bestows hundreds of billions' worth of credits on local electricity and natural-gas distribution companies, as well as on the auto, coal and oil industries - basically anyone with the ear of a congressman or with a halfway competent lobbyist."  

An EPA analysis observes that under Waxman-Markey, there will be no reduction in emissions by 2020 and, if you believe thirty-four Nobel laureates, the allocation of funds for clean energy research and development is far too small in the Waxman-Markey bill, a point the laureates recently made in a letter to President Obama. 

Then there's the Senate's long-awaited version of ‘climate action.' The "Clean Jobs and American Power Act," introduced this month by Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer and John Kerry, is being sold to voters as a "reinvention of the way America produces and uses energy."  

Well, maybe. 

While the bill does incorporate renewable energy, Kerry-Boxer falls short of the minimum emissions reductions scientists say are necessary to mitigate climate change. There is broad scientific consensus that by mid century the world needs at least an 80 percent reduction in current emissions in order to get warming under control. It's also worth remembering that, even though the Kerry-Boxer bill calls for a 20 per cent reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2020 (3 per cent higher than the Waxman-Markey Bill), Waxman-Markey also started at 20 per cent, but that figure was whittled down in subsequent negotiations.  

Interestingly, the legislative lingo in the bill has been strategically modified, with that contentious term, "cap-and-trade" (the trading of emission allowances that limits or ‘caps' an industry's total emissions) having been rather conspicuously replaced by the (presumably more palatable) "pollution reduction and investment program."


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Climate SOS, a coalition of scientists and activists who support science and environmental justice-based climate legislation, recently called the Kerry-Boxer Senate bill an "irresponsible non-solution." Any bill, they argue, "that embraces cap and trade, offsets, outrageously inadequate emission reduction targets, and counter-solutions such as biomass burning, nuclear power and more coal fired power plants (under the guise of partial carbon capture technology that is as yet unavailable) will fail to meet its stated goal of forestalling catastrophic climate change."

In a press release dated October 2, 2009, Maggie Zhou, Climate SOS organizer, and project coordinator with the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities writes: "While cap and trade is the scheme of choice for polluters and Wall Street executives, a revenue-neutral carbon tax-and-dividend program would be much more straightforward, equitable, less prone to fraud and gaming, and would compensate people, not corporations, for the costs of pricing carbon."  

That said, when it comes to carbon offsets (the protocol by which a company may purchase greenhouse gas reduction credits from another project to neutralize the impact of its own emissions), most progressive energy analysts do view the Kerry-Boxer bill as an improvement over Waxman-Markey. Climate Progress editor Joe Romm recently applauded the bill for its "relatively strong approach to offset integrity, avoiding negative social or environmental effects, and facilitating possible integration with other systems."

Larry Lohman, director of is one of a growing number of environmental justice advocates who views carbon offset projects as little more than "pollution as usual." The offsets, writes Lohman, "are reinforcing the power of some of the most oppressive and heaviest-polluting industries in countries such as India, South Africa, Brazil, Ecuador and Uganda." Lohman says that a very small percentage of carbon credits from official UN projects are ever generated by renewable energy projects. Most, he says, "come from big installations that destroy industrial gases or burn methane from waste dumps or coal mines."

With its ‘something-for-everyone' approach, the Kerry-Boxer bill (like Waxman-Markey) panders too much and changes too little. It includes incentives for natural gas, nuclear power and ‘clean coal' to promoting tree planting and sustainable farming practices as ‘alternative compliance options' for industry. And for anyone still hoping a Democratic Congress would mean a more progressive energy policy, Senator Kerry's assertion earlier this month that the US needs to kick its "addiction to oil" by investing in coal and nuclear should set the record straight. 

There is a hopeful new piece of legislation authored by Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, whose approach to emissions is fundamentally (and refreshingly) different from both Waxman-Markey and Boxer-Kerry, with the focus on carbon inputs (limiting the fossil carbon allowed to enter the US economy), as opposed to emissions. Rather than requiring a downstream power plant to reduce its CO2 emissions, the bill requires the upstream coal, natural gas and oil companies that supply the power plant to limit their carbon production. 

Great idea, but, at least so far, Cantwell has not been able to garner the political support she needs to get the legislation off the ground. And, as one past US negotiator recently told the press, "the reality is that is it impossible for my successor to negotiate something in Copenhagen beyond that which Congress will give the administration in domestic cap-and-trade legislation." 

With or without a strong US stand, it's looking as if the climate summit in Copenhagen will have less to do with climate change mitigation than with protecting big business in the interest of global economic growth. Rather than capping, trading and offsetting Big Polluters into submission or pinning all of their hopes on long term - and not easily enforceable - global solutions, the US Congress and President Obama need to use their power to force these big emitters to act now, regardless of discussions at Copenhagen, and regardless of what other countries decide to do.  

Sandy LeonVest

Sandy LeonVest is a radio and print journalist and the editor of SolarTimes (, a publication that looks at energy from a progressive and humanitarian perspective. SolarTimes is distributed throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Sandy is the host of “Political Analysis,” a weekly program aired on the Progressive Radio Network every Tuesday at 6pm EST/3pm PST.

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