Blog U.S. Climate Bill: Is It Smart Environmental Policy?

Like July waters in an Alpine lake, reactions continue to accumulate to the U.S. House’s passage of the 1,201-page Waxman-Markey climate legislation.

The reviews are mixed. In the Los Angeles Times, Todd Darling writes:

The bill…proposes a market-based “carbon trading” plan that mirrors a European system initiated in 2005. This plan requires polluters to obtain government-issued “carbon credits,” which then allow them to pollute above the agreed-on limit….the Waxman-Markey plan…gives 85% of the pollution credits to the biggest polluters for free….

In Europe, the distribution of free pollution credits to industries failed to establish a strong carbon market. In turn, the weak market in carbon credits failed to generate the money needed to fund new technology. And because there was a glut of free credits, polluters that went over the emissions limit could buy the necessary credits cheaply. So important states, such as Britain, continue to exceed the pollution limits.

Faced with disappointing results, Europe began auctioning off more of the credits in 2006. But the damage was done….The complex European trading scheme, started with free pollution credits, has not produced dramatic cuts in pollution or dramatic developments in technology or a robust market in carbon credits. The Financial Times of London was blunt: “Carbon markets leave much room for unverifiable manipulation. [Carbon] taxes are better, partly because they are less vulnerable to such improprieties.”

The Denver Post editorializes:

Largely left out of the current debate are questions about nuclear power. House Republicans say reducing CO2 depends on more atomic development. And for good reason. Nuclear power generation produces zero greenhouses gases and the technology far outpaces renewables like wind and solar in the amount of electricity it can add to the grid. But public fear of reactor problems and radioactive waste stopped new construction of nuclear power plants decades ago.

European countries that rely much more exclusively on nuclear power have made advances in efficiency of the plants, which create less waste, and also ways to recycle and reuse spent rods. We would welcome its development here. But with 104 nuclear reactors currently supplying only 20 percent of our power, we would need to build many more plants to offset our use of fossil fuels in time to meet the 2050 deadline. Unless Congress truly believes it can convince enough communities to accept scores of new nuclear plants across our nation, Waxman- Markey’s goals exist in fantasy.

…Fashioned to avoid appearing like a new tax, the measure nevertheless would work like one, as the higher costs of meeting the caps get passed on to consumers. The measure risks hurting our competitiveness globally without effectively lowering global greenhouse gases. Congress should instead consider a simpler carbon tax, creating a “nuclear-arms race” to harness atomic power to replace fossil fuels and provide incentives to speed new-energy innovation.

Time magazine’s environmental writer Bryan Walsh notes the bill:

…will achieve most of its stated carbon cuts through offsets and through improving energy efficiency, rather than encouraging the growth of low-carbon renewable electricity…..over the long run, we need to cut carbon out of our energy supply – and that means vastly increasing the role of renewables like solar and wind, along with low-carbon sources like nuclear and even coal with carbon capture. That will require plenty of hard scientific research to bring down the price of renewables – they have to be competitive not just in the U.S., but in countries like India and China, which will emit the vast majority of new carbon emissions in the future.

Andrew C. Revkin writes for the New York Times on how the expected growth to nine billion of the world’s population by 2050 will affect our ability to “balance human affairs with the planet’s limits.” In a blog post titled, “The Climate Bill In Climate Context,” he argues that the response to global warming requires a global commitment.

Any flow of money for deploying less-polluting energy technology in developing countries is likely to be constrained in any final climate bill by the Senate, which has expressed big concerns about the United States subsidizing the technological advancement of emerging competitors. The bottom line remains, as the International Energy Agency warned in its 2008 World Energy Outlook, that 97 percent of projected growth in emissions of carbon dioxide from energy use through 2030 (without aggressive action) will come in developing countries, with three-fourths of that growth in China, India and the Middle East. The pace of emissions and long-term warming largely will be determined by how the Obama administration and other leaders of industrialized powers handle that reality.

Accenting that point, India’s environment minister stresses to Bloomberg News, that huge and fast-growing country won’t be considering any limits on aggregate carbon dioxide emissions.