Progress in Climate Change Talks, and a U.S. Plan That Needs Improvement

Thursday, July 16, 2009

SO THE CLIMATE talks at the Group of Eight summit in L'Aquila, Italy, with the world's 17 major greenhouse gas emitters didn't go as planned. Unrest back home forced Chinese President Hu Jintao to leave before he could get down to negotiating with an engaged American president. Developing nations balked at committing to long-term emissions reductions goals because industrialized countries balked at setting short-term targets. And they were none too pleased that rich nations wouldn't make a firm commitment to help them deal with the effects of climate change. All this spells disaster if you have a glass-half-empty worldview.

But take a look at what was accomplished. All of the nations agreed that the Earth's average temperature should not rise more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels. The eight leading industrial nations agreed to slash their greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. This is an improvement over the 50 percent reduction that the G-8 agreed to last year and now puts the industrialized world in sync with what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is needed to halt the catastrophic consequences of climate change. President Obama played an active role in getting this done, quite a change from the foot-dragging and denial that characterized U.S. climate change policy under President George W. Bush.

That's not to say that all's smooth sailing to the big climate treaty talks in Copenhagen in December. In addition to the big hurdles mentioned above, the baseline year is fluid -- based on emission levels "compared to 1990 or more recent years." Many European countries wanted reductions based on 1990 levels. The recently passed American Clean Energy and Recovery Act (a.k.a. Waxman-Markey) is pegged to 2005 levels. And thus our attention moves from the hobbled progress abroad to the chaotic road to consensus at home on climate change legislation that Mr. Obama can take to Denmark.

Even with all the compromises, directives, subsidies and other giveaways hurled at members to secure their votes, Waxman-Markey barely made it out of the House last month. It calls for a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050 below 2005 levels. It would also give away 85 percent of the pollution credits in the initial years of a complicated cap-and-trade system that would put a price on carbon through a declining cap on emissions set by the federal government. That's a far cry from the 100 percent auction of pollution allowances advocated by Mr. Obama as a presidential candidate.

Sadly, we have no confidence that things will improve in the Senate. Despite holding a news conference in February declaring that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee would be "starting fresh" and that "we're willing to look at everything," Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is using the cap-and-trade provisions of Waxman-Markey as the template for her committee's bill. Her committee staff promises that members are being creative in looking at how to do things differently to achieve the bill's goals. Unless that includes serious consideration of a properly designed carbon tax or a cleaner cap-and-trade system that auctions a majority of the emissions credits and rebates the money to taxpayers, that's a promise that won't be fulfilled.

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