Report Says 2 Global Programs To Curb Emissions Fall Short

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Government Accountability Office, in a report issued as negotiators convened the latest round of U.N. climate talks in Poland, has concluded that two key international programs aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions are not getting the job done.

The study, requested by Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.), ranking minority member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and two other House Republicans, highlights problems in the European Union's emissions trading system and in a U.N. program that allows industrialized countries to offset their domestic greenhouse gas emissions.

The GAO said that Europe's cap-and-trade system had created "a functioning market for carbon dioxide allowances, but its effects on emissions, the European economy, and technology investment are less certain." A separate program that grants offsets to industrialized nations for funding energy projects in the developing world, investigators wrote, has had an "uncertain" effect on carbon emissions, "and its impact on sustainable development has been limited."

The report, released Tuesday, has implications for the United States, which could launch a program to limit greenhouse gas emissions as early as next year. President-elect Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are determined to adopt a cap-and-trade system for emissions linked to global warming, and opponents of such a plan seized upon the GAO study as a reason to block it.

"This report identifies some of the potential risks and concerns about regulatory cap-and-trade and related rationing schemes," Barton said in a statement. "It further underscores my concerns that we should not follow Europe's course as it creates potential economic disaster for its citizens."

But Yvo de Boer, executive secretary for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is the host of this week's talks, said yesterday that the GAO report is "not all gloom and doom. There are some positive elements in there. . . . We're in a learning process."

He said the Clean Development Mechanism, the program that lets countries meet part of their emissions reduction targets by funding energy projects in nations such as China and India, "represents one of the only incentives for developing countries to participate in emissions reduction."

Environmentalists concurred with several elements of the report, including its conclusion that European Union officials erred by miscalculating the region's projected emissions and initially giving away all pollution allowances for free. When it became clear the overall cap was higher than actual emissions, the price of carbon allowances crashed.

"They ended up with a not very effective regime," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "President-elect Obama's position that you ought to auction 100 percent of allowances is both analytically and politically right."

One of the biggest problems facing the Clean Development Mechanism, according to both the GAO and several experts, is that it is difficult to determine whether the projects that industrialized nations are funding in developing countries would have happened anyway.

"Congress may wish to consider . . . that the use of carbon offsets in a cap-and-trade system can undermine the system's integrity, given that it is not possible to ensure that every credit represents a real, measurable, and long-term reduction in emissions," the report said.

De Boer said the program has a screening process aimed at ensuring that reductions are meaningful. "It's not as if we're printing money in a garage," he told reporters on a conference call. "There are safeguards and methodologies in place."

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