The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, commonly referred to as the Waxman-Markey Bill, is moving through the U.S. House of Representatives, after passing a vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee 33 to 25 in late May. 

It must pass through a series of difficult legislative hurdles before a final vote in the House—approval here will enable the bill to move forward to the Senate, which may prove to be an even more challenging feat.

But if this first “victory” is to be any indication of what is to come, it might be fair to speculate that the Waxman-Markey Bill will clear its hurdles by incrementally lowering the bar.  Early review of the most recent version of the bill reveal the compromises made to move the bill forward: a diluted midterm reductions target, from a 20% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020 to a 17% reduction; an altered distribution of allowances, initially proposed by the White House to be fully auctioned, now moved to 85% allocation.  Furthermore, the role of offsets has been significantly increased.  Waxman-Markey includes provisions for offsets of 2 billion tons of CO2/yr, of which up to 1.5 billion may come from international sources.  A proposed 1.25:1 offsets to allowances ratio has been softened to a 1:1 ratio until 2017.  This decreases the maximum number of international credits that the use could absorb from 1.875bn to 1.650bn tCO2/y.  Although this sounds small, when you consider that there have only been 289m credits issued under the CDM to date, the cut of 225m comes into perspective. Defining the criteria for which offset programs will be considered appropriate also appears to have been broadened.

In an interview on Monday, Steven Chu acknowledged the draft legislation fell short of White House aspirations, but went on to recognize the role of the climate change bill as a positive step in the right direction.  As reported by Reuters, “This is the really the arc of what really can be done,” Chu said. “I personally believe strongly that we have to get started and so a comprehensive energy and climate change change bill, which has to recognize certain compromises, is really the issue.”

One might consider Chu’s remarks and the revision to the bill thus far in the context of an axiom of political compromise—to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  But the nature of climate change and climate change policy means that there are limits to this conventional political wisdom, for two important reasons: without sufficiently robust targets, the effectiveness of the legislation in resulting in emissions reductions is severely compromised, and, perhaps of more immediate relevance, so too is the ability of the United States to play a strategic role in international negotiations on climate change.  A watered down U.S. domestic policy will dramatically constrain the U.S. position in both Bonn and Copenhagen, to the potential outcome of lowering the bar at the international level as well.  The EU has promised to commit to a 30% in reductions by 2020 from 1990 levels, rather than a guaranteed 20%, provided other key players play ball.  Comparing like for like, US reductions of 17% by 2020 from 2005 levels equate to merely a 3% reduction from 1990 levels. A question remains as to how the EU will respond to such levels.

The Waxman-Markey Bill, diluted at present, will surely be subject to further compromise as it makes its arduous journey through the U.S. Congress.  Will the (hopeful) resulting legislation suffice as evidence to the EU that the U.S. is indeed playing ball?  Will it signal to non-Annex 1 emitters, such as China and India, that they will need to consider significant reductions in emissions?  While it is true that the U.S. indeed must act quickly to rectify the delay in legislation on climate change of the past 8 years, it must do so with the understanding that the outcome of this legislation stands to shape the trajectory for climate change action at the international scale as well.  In doing so, the U.S. should calibrate the height of this bar very, very carefully. 

Simon Billett also contributed to this post.

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