The U.S. role in cap and trade: too little too late, or better than nothing?

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ImageTogether with hundreds of Carbon Expo-nents a couple of weeks ago, I was drawn to the panel discussion on the US House Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill. This was my first trip to Barcelona, and not all the carbon sessions could compete with the sunshine, attractions and food. But this one held my interest. As an American who has lived in Indonesia for 13 years, I was happy to get this insider view from an impressive panel of industry, NGO, and executive and legislative branch representatives. The bill, in short, offers incentives to key industries, gradually lowers the loose early cap to a credible goal by 2050, and creates a huge new offset market – a billion tons a year. If the bill became law, the existing Certified Emissions Reduction (CER) market would have trouble meeting this level of demand.

Though most global citizens think the US should be doing more, faster, there are still major obstacles to getting a law. Foremost, the Senate has to act with a 60% majority. Even though the current legislative body’s composition makes that more likely, the panel doesn’t expect any action until 2010 in the view of the panel – which raises the question of what the Obama administration can take to Copenhagen in 2009. As former staff of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), I was particularly intrigued by a domestic political twist that could lead to faster action: after a Supreme Court decision, the Environmental Protection Agency now holds the power to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act of 1990. The CAA was not designed for this purpose and would be a blunt (and contentious) instrument – feared by industry, loathed by Congress. The fear of this “hammer” in the background may induce faster, broader agreement on a clearer, more acceptable framework.

I’m generally pleased to see action by the USA, though many participants questioned if the commitment is too weak, starting too small, with too great of concessions to industry and too little inducement for developing countries. The panel agreed with some criticisms, but recognized that the political process is a big constraint on more action sooner. Participants seemed to appreciate the fresh insider look at the US political process, but were frustrated that it seems so disconnected from the Copenhagen process and schedule.

Is it too little and too late? Or is some better than none? I’m going to try to stay optimistic and get an invitation to Copenhagen.


Tim Brown

Climate Change - Indonesia

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