Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Global warming demands US attention

Will the White House's next occupant have a climate change plan?

WITH the US financial system on the brink of collapse, the economy will undoubtedly take centre stage as the presidential campaign enters its final weeks.

Where does that leave climate change?

It's easy to assume that whoever ends up in the White House will act on global warming, but given the huge spin generated by presidential campaigns, it is important to understand the realities behind what seem like impressive commitments. In his relatively short time as a senator, Barack Obama supported cap-and-trade legislation, though he was never an outspoken advocate and maintained strong ties to the coal and corn industries.

Obama, however, strongly supports action on climate change in general and a US cap-and-trade program in particular.

As a senator, John McCain was a vocal advocate of cap and trade, sponsoring multiple proposals in the Senate.

He has dropped climate policy from most of his speeches, and his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate raises questions about his commitment to mandatory action.

The reality is that the winning candidate will be faced with three options to tackle climate change, with one of these options more likely to be adopted that the rest.

First, the president could use the US Environmental Protection Agency to put a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, using the Clean Air Act as justification. However, this would mean spending a significant amount of political capital, which presidents usually save for their highest priorities.

With a poor economy and high energy prices, neither candidate is likely to invest too much in a policy that still does not have overwhelming public support.

Second, the president could use the "bully pulpit" to encourage Congress to face the issue.

Again, this would require precious political capital that neither man will want to cash in on climate policy, especially McCain, whose base supporters are calling for increased domestic drilling for fossil fuels.

Third — and far more likely — is that the next president will simply say that this is an issue for Congress. He can thereby maintain his campaign position to address the issue by saying that if Congress passes legislation, he will sign it.

How long it will take Congress to do that is a separate issue, and one that will have consequences domestically and internationally.

Although there is still hope the US will sign up to a post-Kyoto deal, the new president will have only about 10 months to get ready for Copenhagen. US legislation would ideally need to be in place before that, so hopefully Congress will act aggressively.

It is easy to be frustrated about how little political attention climate change is receiving but there are two basic levers that could still result in a meaningful reduction in US carbon emissions.

The high cost of energy in the US has been used to

argue for more domestic drilling and the lifting of bans on offshore oil exploration, often couched in terms of easing dependence on imported oil for the benefit of national security.

Soaring energy costs also provide an effective argument for pursuing alternative energy sources, but although there has been some progress, the case for renewables has not yet been supported by policy.

It is likely we will see increased efforts on energy efficiency and conservation. And while clear and consistent policy on climate change would be preferable to the vagaries of the market (car fuel efficiency climbed quickly following the 1973 energy crisis but did not move much for 30 years), cutting energy waste will benefit the planet as well as making US companies more competitive.

In the meantime, there has been a growing policy response to climate change at a state and regional level, which could lay the groundwork for national action. US states are proving useful laboratories for low-carbon development.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative was launched last month and is the first mandatory, market-based effort in the US to reduce emissions. Ten north-eastern and mid-Atlantic states will cap and then reduce carbon emissions from the power sector by 10% before 2018.

States will sell emission allowances through auctions and invest proceeds in consumer benefits: efficiency, renewables and other clean-energy technologies. This will spur innovation in the clean-energy economy and create green jobs in each state.

California has recently released a second economic assessment plan for implementing the 2006 California Global Warming Solutions Act. It concluded that implementing plans to cut greenhouse gases will benefit the economy and provide jobs and new sources of economic activity.

In the end, despite the pronouncements of the candidates on climate change, they will not be able to act without the support of Congress, and this will require dramatic shifts by representatives from the mid-western and southern states.

While America may lose a few tonnes of carbon simply through cost-cutting by companies and consumers, there will be no significant progress until Congress decides on stronger action. But at least the world will not be faced with a president who actively blocks progress on climate change.

Emily Farnworth is director of corporate engagement at The Climate Group.

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