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Synthesis/Regeneration 51   (Winter 2010)

The Problem with Climate Legislation

Politics-as-Usual While the Planet Burns

by Brian Tokar

As of this writing, national legislation aimed to address the global climate crisis is bogged down in the U.S. Senate. While Senator Barbara Boxer of California, the main sponsor along with John Kerry of Massachusetts, is anxious to hold a committee hearing on the bill, Republican Senators are thus far boycotting the entire effort. The Senate Republicans are denouncing the bill for many reasons, from outright denial of human responsibility for climate changes, to their inclination to defend fossil fuel interests, to claims that it's nothing more than another federal tax.

Considerably less reported, though, is the fact that increasing numbers of environmental activists oppose this legislation. A lively debate has ensued among environmentalists over the question: Is this bill better or worse than nothing?

The current Senate bill is a somewhat revised version of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, or ACES bill, that passed the House of Representatives last summer, under the sponsorship of Rep. Waxman of California and Rep. Markey of Massachusetts. Rep. Waxman called the House passage a "decisive and historic action," and President Obama described the bill as "a bold and necessary step." Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund, among the most corporate-friendly of the major environmental groups, called it no less than "the most important environmental and energy legislation in the history of our country."

It also contains a number of Trojan Horse provisions that...could ultimately forestall...genuine climate progress.

Environmental Defense, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Nature Conservancy, played an important role in the development of the bill. As members of the US Climate Action Partnership, a collaboration with corporations such as Alcoa, BP, Dow, DuPont, GE, and the former big three US automakers, among others, they helped articulate what would become the bill's broad outlines: an emphasis on long-range goals, trading of emissions allowances, initially free distribution of those allowances, and a generous offset provision that permits companies to defer significant pollution reductions well into the future.

While many environmentalists breathed a sigh of relief, and suggested that any step in the direction of regulating carbon dioxide and other climate damaging greenhouse gases is better than nothing, others remained skeptical. As the bill meandered its way through various House committees, groups like Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen, and Greenpeace issued sharp critiques. Even more scathing were analyses from smaller independent groups such as Chesapeake Climate Action and the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). The bill falls far short of international standards in mandating a meaningful level of reductions in global warming pollution, and seeks to implement decades of emissions cuts through the market-based device known as "cap and trade." It also contains a number of Trojan Horse provisions that it shares with the Senate bill and could ultimately forestall, rather than encourage, genuine climate progress. While low expectations and politics-as-usual continue to impede progress in the US, activists in Europe and throughout the global South are raising far more forward-looking demands.

The Acid Rain Program succeeded modestly because still-regulated electric utilities were mandated to actually reduce their output of acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide.

By the time the House bill had passed through the relevant committees, as well as last-minute horse-trading on the House floor, the loopholes were staggering to behold. An international consensus is emerging that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions on the order of 25-40% are needed in the next decade or so to prevent a slide toward uncontrollable global climate chaos, with reductions on the order of 85-95% required by mid-century. Both bills attempt to shift the terms of the discussion by measuring emissions relative to 2005 levels rather than the accepted Kyoto Protocol benchmark of 1990. The House version promises a 17% reduction by 2020, relative to 2005 - which only translates into 4 or 5% less global warming pollution than the US produced in 1990 - and the Senate version raises that to 20% relative to 2005. The much-touted cap-and-trade provision of the bill accounts for about a 1% reduction by 2020, according to the Center for Biological Diversity's analysis, with the remainder coming from regular, old-fashioned performance standards for smaller pollution sources, including automobiles, and from a controversial USAID effort to reduce deforestation in poorer countries. For comparison, most wealthy countries agreed over a decade ago in Kyoto to reduce their emissions by 2012 to 6-8% below 1990 levels.

...some 7400 facilities across this country would be given annual allowances to continue emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

It's important to note that the deforestation provisions of the bill mirror a highly controversial international climate mitigation strategy, promoted by the UN and the World Bank under the name of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries (REDD). REDD mainly targets intact forested lands, largely occupied by indigenous peoples, which are threatened with privatization for use as carbon offsets. Soon after the current US bill passed the House, an Anglo-African brokerage firm announced that it would sell "avoided deforestation" credits to buyers of voluntary carbon offsets in the US, threatening a wave of corporate takeovers of African forest lands.

Cap-and-trade, of course, is the latest catch phrase for attempting to control pollution by establishing an artificial market in permits to emit carbon dioxide. Since George Bush Senior's Acid Rain Program of the early 1990s, advocates have aggressively promoted the idea that the most efficient pollution reductions come from the government setting a cap, and then allowing companies to freely trade pollution permits in order to nominally encourage development of the most cost-effective technologies. The Acid Rain Program succeeded modestly, but mainly because still-regulated electric utilities (this was the pre-Enron era) were mandated by state officials to hold true to their obligations and actually reduce their output of acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide. Trading contributed only marginally to the 50% pollution reductions from that program; the largest reductions came simply from a shift toward burning low-sulfur coal. An effort to reduce air pollution in southern California by a similar trading scheme appears to have mainly delayed the installation of emission controls, and the region still has the dirtiest air in the country. In Europe just three years ago, the value of tradable carbon dioxide allowances plummeted and the carbon trading system almost collapsed under the weight of excess permits that were freely granted to favored industries.

Under the House bill, some 7400 facilities across this country would be given annual allowances to continue emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. As many as 85% of the allowances would initially be given to polluting companies for free, reversing Obama's campaign pledge that they should mainly be auctioned off. (In Europe, utilities routinely bill their customers for these newly acquired credits.) Meanwhile, the quantity of available allowances would actually increase through 2016, only falling gradually thereafter, and companies would be allowed to indefinitely "bank" them for future use, borrow from their future allowances, and finally trade them with other regulated companies as well as with Wall Street firms and an emerging cadre of brokers in carbon futures. If all this reads a little too much like the financial machinations that nearly brought down the world's financial markets in 2008, consider that carbon market boosters are projecting a worldwide trading system ultimately valued at $10 trillion a year - perhaps launching the next financial bubble. All this potential for increased financial fraud and manipulation is for a mere 1% in CO2 reductions over the next decade, and a questionable promise of 70% by mid-century.

Many argue that, for all their uncertainty, these highly manipulable financial dealings are worth the risk because they facilitate the phase-in of an enforceable cap on global warming pollution. But the legislation replicates another of the most egregious features of the largely failed Kyoto Protocol: a virtual "hole in the cap" in the form of an offset feature that allows companies to meet their obligations by investing instead in pollution control projects anywhere in the country, and even overseas. Companies could satisfy their full obligation to reduce CO2 by buying offsets until 2027; those familiar with ACES' fine print suggest that companies could stretch this out for 30-40 years.

...the legislation replicates...a virtual "hole in the cap".

An entirely new global mythology has arisen around the idea of carbon offsets. Nearly every time you buy tickets for an airplane flight or for some major cultural event, someone is out to sell you offsets to alleviate your contribution to global warming. Carbon offsets have become the postmodern version of the indulgences the Catholic church used to sell in the Middle Ages to buy your way out of sin. But on a global scale, with corporations instead of individuals as the main players, they have become a scam of gigantic proportions. Rather than promoting innovative measures to reduce energy use in poor countries, as they are usually advertised, carbon offsets are subsidizing the already routine destruction of byproducts from China's rising production of ozone-destroying hydrofluorocarbons, minor retooling of highly polluting pig iron smelters in India, and methane capture from a notoriously toxic landfill in South Africa.

One of the most notorious cases is that of the French chemical company Rhodia, which is anticipating a billion dollars in carbon offset credits in exchange for a $15 million investment in 1970s-vintage technology to destroy the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide in its facility in South Korea. Carbon offsets have become the company's most profitable line of business. Major hydroelectric projects, mainly in China, India and Brazil, represent a quarter of applications for offset credits, and nearly all of these projects are already under development before applying for the credits. As the International Rivers Network and others have pointed out, large-scale hydro, far from being green, is responsible for huge quantities of methane and other greenhouse gases. A German study of UN-approved carbon offset projects in 2007 reported that as many as 86% of offset-funded projects would likely have been carried out anyway. This runs counter to the Kyoto Protocol guidelines requiring that projects granted emissions offsets must be "additional;" that is, they cannot already have been planned.

An entirely new global mythology has arisen around the idea of carbon offsets.

Allowing companies to postpone their own greenhouse gas reductions by buying offsets is one Trojan Horse provision in the climate bill that could forestall future progress against the continued disruption of the climate. Another such measure in the House version essentially bans the EPA from using the Clean Air Act to impose future regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. Recall that it was a 2007 Supreme Court decision allowing the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant that forced the Bush administration to finally start talking about global warming. Removing this authority represents a massive concession to polluting industries, one that would essentially remove the teeth of enforcement from future measures to forestall climate chaos. While the Senate version restores EPA's Clean Air Act authority, Senator Kerry has announced publicly that this is mainly a bargaining chip that could be altered to help win Republican support for the bill.

In addition to these fundamental flaws in the two bills, politically powerful industries have written in further concessions of their own. (The Center for Public Integrity reported in February that some 2340 lobbyists are working in Washington on this issue.) The coal industry gets until 2025 in the House version to have to comply with mandated pollution reductions, with ample means for gaining further extensions. Agribusiness, which is responsible for as much as a quarter of US greenhouse gas emissions, is exempt from most of the bill's provisions, but large scale farmers who, for example, reduce tillage by growing crops genetically engineered to withstand megadoses of herbicides may be eligible for offset credits. Assessments of ethanol's eligibility as a "renewable fuel" are to exclude its effects on land use, a factor that researchers from Princeton and the University of Minnesota proved decisive in a pair of landmark studies last year, which showed that industrial biofuels are actually net contributors to global warming.

Finally, the nuclear industry promises to be a leading beneficiary of the bills' free allocation of emission allowances; a memo leaked to the Huffington Post reports that Exelon, currently the largest US nuclear power company, expects a $1-1.5 billion annual windfall from the House bill. In a particularly outrageous op-ed piece in the New York Times on October 11, Sen. Kerry teamed up with right wing Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to promise significantly expanded subsidies to both the nuclear and fossil fuel industries in exchange for Republican votes.

To get the Waxman-Markey version passed through the House, the bill additionally included "billions of dollars in special interest favors" introduced on the House floor, according to the New York Times. These included $1 billion for green job creation job training in low income communities, viewed as a relatively minor concession by many inner city activists; the biggest concessions were clearly to oil and gas producers. Requirements for utilities to invest in renewable energy were severely curtailed to satisfy some southern Democrats. Still, despite all these concessions, senators beholden to major polluting industries are already jockeying for much more, threatening to hold up the bill indefinitely if they cannot win even bigger concessions. A bill that passed the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee just a week prior to the ACES vote in the House would open large new tracts of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling, fund a new gas pipeline in Alaska, and increase funds for scientifically dubious efforts to permanently capture and store CO2 emissions from coal-burning power plants. These provisions are likely to be included in any "compromise" Senate version of the climate bill.

...as many as 86% of offset-funded projects would likely have been carried out anyway.

The current debate on climate policy is even more disturbing in light of international developments. The US, which still produces a quarter of the world's global warming pollution, continues to be a central obstacle to a meaningful climate treaty. The other is Japan, which recently announced that it would only aim to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions another 2% beyond its Kyoto Protocol obligation over the next decade. Negotiators meeting in Bonn in early June sought to begin hammering out the details of an agreement. Instead, according to Martin Khor of the Malaysia-based Third World Network, a decades-long participant in the UN process, "not only is the climate in crisis, the climate talks are also in crisis." The problem was further exacerbated in a pre-Copenhagen negotiation in Bangkok in October, when for the first time the European Union joined with the US in refusing to accept the principle - adopted in Kyoto back in 1997 - of further mandated emissions reductions.

European activists agreed on a comprehensive five point agenda, reaching well beyond the increasingly corporate-dominated UN process. Their priorities include leaving fossil fuels in the ground, socializing and decentralizing energy production, relocalizing food systems, respecting indigenous peoples' rights, regenerating ecosystems, and repaying the ecological and climate debts owed by the richest countries to those who are most affected by resource extraction and climate-related disasters. Environmental justice advocates based in communities of color across the US are joining with indigenous activists and representatives of affected communities around the world to articulate a Climate Justice perspective (see actforclimatejustice.org), which rejects carbon trading and seeks a just transition to a non-polluting economy.

Once again, though, the main push for action is coming from outside the US. For example a statement by the European Climate Justice Action network, which coordinated plans for direct action around the UN climate summit in Copenhagen, was drafted by representatives from more than 20 countries, including several from the global South. "We cannot trust the market with our future, nor put our faith in unsafe, unproven and unsustainable technologies," the declaration read. "Contrary to those who put their faith in `green capitalism,' we know that it is impossible to have infinite growth on a finite planet." The worldwide confederation of peasant movements, Via Campesina, also joined the call for actions at the 2009 UN summit, challenging the status of carbon as a newly privatized commodity and arguing that the UN climate convention "has failed to radically question the current models of consumption and production based on the illusion of continuous growth."

The increasing urgency of the climate crisis has clearly hit a nerve among people of many walks of life, all around the world. While the outcome of international negotiations remains highly uncertain, it is clear that such a flowering of creative and determined popular responses is precisely what is needed to reverse decades of willful inaction by the world's elites and reach beyond the limits of politics-as-usual.

Brian Tokar is the Director of the Vermont-based Institute for Social Ecology (social-ecology.org). His books include Earth for Sale, Redesigning Life? and the forthcoming collection (co-edited with Fred Magdoff), Crisis in Food and Agriculture: Conflict, Resistance and Renewal (Monthly Review Press).

[22 dec 09]

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