Q and A on the Climate Bill

By David A. Fahrenthold and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 5, 2009; 7:21 PM

The climate bill approved by the House last month started out as an idea -- fight global warming -- and wound up looking like an unabridged dictionary. It runs to more than 1,400 pages, swollen with loopholes and giveaways meant to win over un-green industries and wary legislators.

Here are answers to some key questions about the bill.

How would it work?

The legislation sponsored by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) would set a limit on greenhouse gas emissions and gradually tighten it. Major emitters of greenhouse gases -- including any business that burns fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas or coal -- would have to reduce their emissions or buy allowances, which would be traded on markets like commodities. This would be the first economy-wide limit on greenhouse gases in the United States; Europe has had a similar system in place for years.

Would this bill stop climate change?

No. Even if it works exactly as planned -- delivering a 17 percent reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 compared with 2005 levels -- it might not slow down the rate of climate change by very much.

That is because emissions are a global problem: Greenhouse gases contribute to the Earth's warming whether they are emitted in China or in Chevy Chase. Even if the United States meets the legislation's goals for 2020, the world's total emissions would be reduced by about 3 percent, according to Energy Department projections.

That would be a start, environmentalists say. Usually emissions grow as the economy grows, so a 17 percent cut would be a huge feat for the energy industry. But scientists say that far deeper cuts are needed to head off disaster from warming temperatures, rising sea levels and other climate changes. The legislation would require reductions of 42 percent by 2030 and 83 percent by 2050.

What will all this change cost, and who will pay?

Less than 50 cents per household per day, according to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Congressional Budget Office. And that does not take into account benefits from avoiding hard-to-calculate costs associated with accelerating climate change.

According to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, the cost would be much steeper: $11.78 per day in the coming decades. According to House Republicans, the costs would cripple the U.S. economy and drive American jobs to countries that do not have climate regulations.

These costs are a mix of higher prices for carbon-based fuels -- the whole idea of a cap-and-trade system -- offset by a complex series of tax breaks and free allowances, new technologies and behavioral changes, and impacts on corporations and their profits.

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