A palpable sense of triumph accompanied the passage last week of a first-of-its-kind global warming bill in the US House of Representatives. Rep. Henry Waxman of California, one of the bill’s two main sponsors, called it a “decisive and historic action,” and President Obama described the bill as “a bold and necessary step.” Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund, among the most corporate-friendly of the major environmental groups, called it no less than “the most important environmental and energy legislation in the history of our country.” After twenty years of congressional inaction on the worldwide threat of catastrophic climate changes, there was a palpable sense of anxiety underlying the view that any step in the direction of regulating carbon dioxide and other climate damaging greenhouse gases is better than nothing.
But is it? Throughout the 2 1/2 months that the current bill meandered its way through various congressional committees, groups like Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen, and Greenpeace issued sharp critiques. Even more scathing were analyses from smaller independent groups such as Chesapeake Climate Action and the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). The bill falls far short of international standards in mandating a meaningful level of reductions in global warming pollution, and seeks to implement decades of emissions cuts through the market-based device known as “cap-and-trade.” It also contains a number of Trojan Horse provisions that could ultimately forestall, rather than encourage, genuine climate progress. While low expectations and politics-as-usual continue to impede progress in the US, activists in Europe and throughout the global South are raising far more forward-looking demands in the lead-up to the next global UN climate summit, to be held in Copenhagen in December.
To those who may not have followed all the legislative play-by-play since this bill was first released by Waxman’s House Energy and Commerce Committee in early April, the loopholes are staggering to behold. An international consensus is emerging that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions on the order of 30-40 percent are needed in the next decade or so to prevent a slide toward uncontrollable global climate chaos, with reductions on the order of 85-95 percent required by mid-century. The Waxman bill-cosponsored by Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, and known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act, or ACESA-first attempts to shift the terms of the discussion by measuring emissions relative to 2005 levels rather than the accepted Kyoto Protocol benchmark of 1990. It promises a 17 percent reduction by 2020, relative to 2005, which only translates into 4 or 5 percent less global warming pollution than the US produced in 1990. The much-touted cap-and-trade provision of the bill accounts for about a 1 percent reduction by 2020, according to the Center for Biological Diversity’s analysis, with the remainder coming from regular, old-fashioned performance standards for smaller pollution sources, including automobiles, and from a controversial USAID effort to reduce deforestation in poorer countries. For comparison, most wealthy countries agreed over a decade ago in Kyoto to reduce their emissions by 2012 to 6-8 percent below 1990 levels.
Cap-and-trade, of course, is the latest catch phrase for attempting to control pollution by establishing an artificial market in permits to emit carbon dioxide. Since George Bush Senior’s Acid Rain Program of the early 1990s, advocates have aggressively promoted the idea that the most efficient pollution reductions come from the government setting a cap, and then allowing companies to freely trade pollution permits in order to nominally encourage development of the most cost-effective technologies. The Acid Rain Program succeeded modestly, but mainly because still-regulated electric utilities (this was the pre-Enron era) were mandated by state officials to hold true to their obligations and actually reduce their output of acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide. Trading contributed only marginally to the 50 percent pollution reductions from that program. An effort to reduce air pollution in southern California by a similar scheme appears to have mainly delayed the installation of emission controls, and the region still has the dirtiest air in the country. In Europe just three years ago, the value of tradable carbon dioxide allowances plummeted and the carbon trading system almost collapsed under the weight of excess permits that were freely granted to favored industries.