Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Climate Bill to be Excited About

By Brad Heavner.

Sen. Barbara Boxer has said she will unveil the Senate version of federal climate legislation on Wednesday. Will the bill be inadequate to the task at hand or the most revolutionary energy policy ever considered by Congress?

The answer is both, if you consider the task at hand to be solving global warming. But it’s important to realize that no single action – even comprehensive energy legislation passed by the U.S. Congress – is going to be enough to solve the climate crisis on its own. What we need is strong progress that creates opportunities for even more progress soon. To that task, this bill is worth our strong support, particularly if the Senate version fixes some of the biggest flaws coming over from the House.

The bill the House passed in June, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (The ACES Act), makes good and measurable progress toward a clean energy future. It gets the basic framework right, setting a price on carbon with some of the proceeds to be used to invest in transforming our energy economy. It also includes new building codes, pollution standards for heavy trucks, appliance standards, and requirements that transportation spending take into account energy and climate impacts.

And, most importantly, we’ll be able to improve on it over time. If we can show a comprehensive global warming bill to be winnable in Congress, and if voters don’t revolt and people start to see the benefits of clean energy, we will be able to come back for more soon.

If it fails, on the other hand, the story in Congress will be reinforced that global warming legislation is bad politics and you don’t want to go near it with a ten-foot pole.

Don’t get me wrong, the ACES Act has serious problems. The bill only requires a 17 percent emission reduction by 2020, and much of that could be eroded by “offsets” – actions outside of the U.S. or in sectors not covered by the cap. The bill also takes away the EPA’s authority to address emissions from our dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Those compromises were painful.

Clearly, we are running out of time to deal with global warming effectively. Some suggest that means we can’t afford to pass legislation that does anything less than promise a full solution to the problem. But the plain fact of the matter in 2009 is that a good energy bill that puts America on a path to a clean energy future may be winnable in the U.S. Congress after a tough fight. The chances of winning a bill within the next couple of years that truly delivers what the science calls for are non-existent. Let’s win this and then keep fighting from there.

Forgive me a sports analogy. The planet is like a baseball team coming to bat down five runs in the bottom of the ninth. No matter how much you might need it, it is not possible to hit a five-run homer. You’ve got to get a hit, and hope the next guy does the same, and so on. The planet needs a five-run homer right now, and the ACES Act isn’t that. But it is a very solid hit that keeps us in the ball game.

In Maryland, we passed a renewable energy standard in 2003, requiring that 7.5 percent of our electricity come from clean energy sources by 2019. That percentage was so low that we didn’t know if it would mean much at the time. But since then, we have improved the number twice, to 9.5 percent in 2007 and 20 percent in 2008.

It’s time to do the same thing on a bigger issue on a bigger scale.

If you want more detail on all of this, check out this white paper.

Brad Heavner is the State Director of Environment Maryland.