U.S. Emissions Bill Is Criticized Abroad

Rep. Edward J. Markey is a co-sponsor of the bill, hailed in the United States as a breakthrough.
Rep. Edward J. Markey is a co-sponsor of the bill, hailed in the United States as a breakthrough. (By Susan Walsh -- Associated Press)
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By David A. Fahrenthold and Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 13, 2009

A bill to cap U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, hailed on Capitol Hill as a historic breakthrough, went over with a soft thud this week during international negotiations, criticized as inadequate for the climate and unfair to poor countries.

The bill passed a House of Representatives committee last month and is regarded as the most serious effort yet to reduce U.S. contributions to climate change. But at a United Nations-led conference in Bonn, Germany, and at a summit of mega-emitters America and China in Beijing, some environmental groups and foreign governments derided it for a lack of ambition.

The bill's target for reducing emissions is "unacceptable to China," said Pan Jiahua, an official at a think tank affiliated with the Chinese government and a member of the Chinese government's advisory panel on climate change. "It is much too low."

That kind of reaction revealed the vastness of the work ahead, as countries seek to hammer out a new climate treaty by December.

This week it was mainly posturing and gridlock. The United States promised a first step; others said the situation requires a long jump.

"Either the gulf is widening" between what the United States and other industrialized nations are willing to do and what developing countries like China want them to do, said Robert N. Stavins, a professor of business and government at Harvard University, "or else it was always wide, and only now are we realizing it."

The two sets of talks this week marked a kind of international coming-out for the U.S. bill, which passed the House Energy and Commerce in May.

As now written, it calls for a 17 percent cut in U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, compared with 2005 levels, by 2020. It would accomplish this by a "cap-and-trade" system, which sets a national emissions limit and requires companies to amass credits they could buy or sell for all the gases they emit.

The bill has already been watered down, its central goal reduced from 20 percent, to please representatives of states with heavy-polluting coal and manufacturing industries. There could be more changes: The bill must pass through several other House committees, the House floor and the Senate.

In China and Germany, many said it was already too weak.

"I don't think China will fall back from its current position," which calls for the United States to reduce its emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels, a much deeper cut than the ones called for in the House bill, said Teng Fei, a researcher at Tsinghua University who is on China's negotiating team.

China and other developing countries say the United States and other rich nations have a moral duty to cut emissions sharply since their smokestacks have been emitting greenhouse gases for far longer.

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