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Prospects Improve for U.S. Global Warming Law

2007 ended with a roadmap to a new global climate change agreement. At the U.N. meeting in Bali in December, the United States first rejected and then accepted a compromise that sets the stage for climate negotiations over the next two years.

Here is a closer look at the forces shaping U.S. climate policy in 2008:

In his 2008 State of the Union address President Bush directed Congress to act on a proposal to stimulate the U.S. economy. "This is a good agreement that will keep our economy growing and our people working. And this Congress must pass it as soon as possible."

Environmental groups are urging Congress to include an extension of renewable energy tax credits in that package. They were cut from the 2007 energy bill. But these tax credits have helped infuse billions of dollars into the American economy since they were introduced in 2005. Anna Aurilio, Washington director for Environment America, says eliminating those incentives during a recession is poor policy. "Seventy-five thousand people could be thrown out of work if these tax credits are not extended in a timely fashion."

Although he did not mention the tax credits in his speech, President Bush did propose other environmental measures, including creation of an international fund to deploy clean energy to developing countries, development of carbon capturing technologies for coal-powered plants, investment in more energy efficient cars and completion of a global climate change agreement, which he said would only be effective, "if it includes commitments by every major economy and gives none a free ride."

President Bush referred to the growing economies in China, India and Brazil, which are not required to comply with emissions targets set in the Kyoto Protocol. The global treaty on climate change is set to expire in 2012.

Discussion for a new treaty began in Bali, Indonesia last month. Helen Howes was there representing Exelon, one of the largest electric utilities in the United States. Exelon is a member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership or USCAP, a business alliance calling on Congress to quickly enact climate legislation. She says Exelon joined USCAP compelled by the science on climate change and the need for business to make the transition to a low carbon economy. "It is a broad coalition of business and non-governmental groups that I think will capture the imagination of the hill."

While USCAP does back mandatory limits on carbon emissions, it has not endorsed any of the more than half-dozen climate bills before Congress. Alden Meyer, a policy analyst with the Union for Concerned Scientists, says a bill which calls for carbon caps and a 70 percent emissions reductions by 2050 has the most support among environmental activists. "We are united in pushing for further strengthening of this bill, both in terms of the short and long term targets, in terms of strengthening the action required as a result of the periodic reviews of the science by the National Academy of Sciences, and trying to further reduce the fee allocation of allowances to polluting industries."

The success of this bill — or any other — depends a lot on politics. Coal is responsible for 20 percent of U.S. carbon emissions. Yet 50 percent of the nation's electricity comes from coal.

World Resources Institute president Jonathan Lash says lawmakers must fashion a bill that coal-producing states can support. "The political problem in the senate is that you need 60 votes [to pass], and it is very hard to get 60 votes without any votes from senators who are from states that are totally coal dependent." He adds, "The negotiation over the legislation is going to have to provide some assurance to coal dependent states that they won't be complete losers in the process of trying to reduce emissions."

While Congress continues to argue over how to do that, regional coalitions to reduce emissions have taken up the slack. Lash says Congress may be pushed to act simply because each coalition (together representing 21 states) has a different set of rules, which he says, "begins to become untenable for companies trying to figure out how to manage their own emissions and how to make investments in plant and equipment that will continue to operate for 25, 30 or 40 years, whether to invest in low carbon or conventional equipment."

Whether or not mandates for emissions reductions become law in 2008, global warming issues will continue to be part of the national debate as campaigns for U.S. president and Congress heat up in coming months.