Should the US scrap the Waxman-Markey climate bill?

| 8th October 2009
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Neither greens nor fossil-fuel addicts are happy with it, and there could be better ways of forcing the US to reduce its emissions. So should we just scrap the Waxman-Markey climate bill?

The US may have turned a corner on climate change since Bush left the White House, but the ambition of the US climate bill - passed by the House of Representatives back in June - is estimated to be a mere 2-4 per cent drop in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 compared to the UN reference year of 1990.

If the US was to play its fair role in a global climate deal, it would need to reduce its emissions domestically not by 2-4 per cent but by around a whopping 40 per cent.

On top of this it would need to provide finance and technology to enable developing countries to reduce emissions by a similar absolute amount, to compensate victims of climate change in poor countries and to help them adapt.

So is that game over? Or are there some policy tricks left in the bag that are being overlooked? What options are available to the US if it wants to up its game and save the day?

Well, the US could jettison the market-based cap and trade system from the climate bill (formerly titled the American Clean Energy and Security Act or ACES and often referred to as the Waxman-Markey Bill) which would otherwise allow coal-fired power plants to continue to be built until 2020. Instead President Obama could chose to regulate coal plants directly using the Environmental Protection Agency’s existing authority under the Clean Air Act.

Just the threat of using EPA authority earlier this year was enough to put the development of 17 new coal-fired power stations on hold. The Senate version of this Bill released just last week reinstates EPA authority over coal – so this is turning into a real possibility.

According to Daphne Wysham of the Sustainable Energy & Economy Network, the good bits of the ACES Bill – the renewable energy targets and energy efficiency standards – are largely uncontroversial. Why not pass these separately?

If the definition of renewable energy was tightened to exclude industrially-produced biofuels and biomass - which are now largely thought to have full-lifecycle carbon counts that are worse than their fossil fuel counterparts, as well as having unacceptable impacts on land use, food prices and hunger – then the legislation would be stronger still. As leading environmental thinker Lester R Brown strongly argues, the US government’s $5bn incentive scheme for biofuels should be scrapped.

James Hansen and others have long-advocated a 'tax & 100 per cent dividend' approach in order to tackle the demand side of the energy equation. Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State is rumoured to soon be tabling a 'cap & dividend' bill which is a variant on this approach.

The details of Cantwell’s Bill are not yet clear, but since she has previously testified on her concern that an ACES-style 'cap & trade' system would create a trillion dollar market in carbon futures and derivatives, it seems likely that her version of 'cap & dividend' will do away with the trade element.

A system favoured by many, cap and dividend involves capping emissions, auctioning permits off to polluters and then returning 100 per cent of the revenues to US citizens on an equal per capita basis. If Cantwell’s bill can demonstrate potential for delivering significant cuts and speeding up the transition to a post-fossil fuel economy, this late arriving outsider might yet have legs which outpace the widely discredited 'cap & trade' carbon offsetting system – the corporations’ favoured approach which does its best to extend business as usual.

None of this will happen by itself. As Keith Harrington of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network writes: 'Of course, what we really need now to get bold climate solutions is a flood: a  constant, gushing, rushing, flow of political capital from the American people to our leaders in Washington. One strong enough to finally and unequivocally break down the dam of obstructionism that the forces of the status quo have erected between us and a clean energy future. What we need is an inexorable torrent of democracy dollars: a deluge of demonstrations in every city and town, a surge of non-violent civil disobedience actions at every coal plant, a flood of emails to swamp our congressional representatives’ phones and inboxes. And it should start with an absolute tsunami of a rally in Washington on October 24th, The International Day of Climate Action'

Last week's episode of Phil England’s '300-350 Show' features an interview with Daphne Wysham discussing options for enhanced US action on climate change.

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