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Counting the Real Progress on Climate Action

SOURCE: AP/Greg Baker

A man cycles past cooling towers of the coal-powered Fuxin Electricity Plant in Fuxin, in China's northeast Liaoning province. Heading into the Copenhagen climate talks later this year we need a better accounting of what the United States—and other countries such as China—are doing to achieve meaningful carbon reductions.

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We are now entering the six-month period before the U.N. climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, which are intended to hammer out a successor treaty to the Kyoto protocol that expires in 2012. Progress on climate policy domestically will increase U.S. leverage in these talks, but President Barack Obama should look for additional ways to improve the American negotiating position than what we currently have on the table.

In particular we need a better accounting of what the United States—and other countries as well—are doing to achieve meaningful carbon reductions. Importantly, a more detailed analysis would reveal that the American Clean Energy and Security Act, or ACES, recently passed through committee by Congressmen Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA), would achieve more carbon reduction than first meets the eye.

The soft underbelly of ACES is its 2020 midterm carbon cap targets, which have been assailed by some environmentalists. At 17 percent below 2005 levels these targets apparently give the Obama administration precious little to meet global expectations about U.S. action on climate change. For starters these caps fall below the European Union’s agreed-upon 20 percent reductions below 1990 levels by 2020. If we were to meet our allies at these goals then the European Union will increase their midterm reductions to 30 percent. At its current levels ACES does not trigger this critical shift.

More troubling, there are already clear signs that ACES’s targets are far less than we need to garner China’s full engagement in an international agreement on capping emissions. China, now a larger emitter than the United States, will not sign on to any sort of hard limits to its emissions without a clear commitment by the far-richer United States to do so. To create some negotiating room for itself, Beijing has publicly called for much more aggressive cuts from the developed world—a 40-percent reduction by 2020 from 1990 levels. The U.S. State Department negotiating team, under the leadership of Center for American Progress’ former Senior Fellow Todd Stern, has already indicated that this is an untenable goal for the United States, regardless of what some may consider the possibility of such cuts. This is disappointing especially now that China is taking these issues more seriously than ever before and is showing signs that they may be prepared to commit to some sort of mandate under a new treaty. The coming summer of climate negotiations is already looking long and hot.

Are we then at an impasse? Possibly not. If we look beyond the stated target caps in ACES at the potential reductions in greenhouse gases from its complementary requirements for energy efficiency and intensity improvements, as well as the additional reductions that could potentially be captured by other parts of the legislation in verifiable offsets, then the picture improves. What we essentially need is a different accounting measure which will show the full potential of the legislation to make reductions in emissions below business-as-usual, or BAU scenarios by the energy provisions of the bill plus a flexible architecture in the legislation which can get more cuts down the road. We suggest measuring such progress using “carbon cap equivalents” as a way of profiling a country’s commitment to meeting emissions reductions.

With this carbon cap equivalents approach the better measure of what each country is doing is derived by adding up the full range of supplemental and complementary proposals to each country’s carbon cap and converting this into one comparable figure of what these emissions reductions would effectively amount to if they had been the result of a carbon cap alone. The modeling will be complex, but we should open up the language of the hoped-for Copenhagen treaty so that signatory nations can demonstrate their acceptance of the treaty goals through such equivalents—representing the full range of their policy profile to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—above and beyond their formal cap.

A recent proposal by the Australian delegation to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action calls for something similar to what we are suggesting. Namely, they propose that in Copenhagen we allow countries to meet their nationally appropriate mitigation targets through measures over and above a carbon cap. This is not an attempt to side-step the goals of the UNFCCC process, but rather to provide a more honest comparison of what we are all doing in ways that are not only appropriate for our particular economic histories but also are compatible with the restrictions and opportunities provided by our individual policy frameworks.

If we were to take this broader view, and take measure of the full breadth of complementary actions contemplated by the proposed Waxman-Markey legislation, then we get a different picture of the potential impact of this legislation. According to a recent study by the World Resources Institute, if one considers the full range of complementary provisions in the Waxman-Markey bill, in addition to the “cap-and-trade” portions, such as international forestry projects, industrial performance standards, residential energy-efficiency measures, and international offsets, then emissions reductions of up to 23 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 are realizable—an outcome that would actually meet the European Union’s standards. WRI further projects that such a full range of actions under the bill would lead to emissions reductions of 77 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, a result consistent with what is needed by the international community as a whole to contain the increase of average global temperatures to the catastrophe-averting limit of 2°C.

So too for the way we should approach our negotiating position with the major emitters in the developing world. China appears to be making steady progress toward its goal of achieving a 20-percent reduction in energy intensity by 2010. But because we have framed the solutions to global warming only in terms of the formal carbon caps that have been accepted by a given country, the American media and policymakers don’t generally count other improvements in a country’s carbon profile in their assessment of the country’s commitment to the process or of their real improvements. This needs to be changed in order to get a fair comparison of what everyone is doing.

For example, if one were to look at the last major attempt to push legislation through on climate change in the United States—the Lieberman-Warner Act, which failed in the U.S. Senate last summer—analysis at that time by the Center for Clean Air Policy suggested that the combined unilateral activities of China, Brazil, and Mexico in improvements in energy efficiency and energy intensity would achieve greater effective reductions in carbon emissions below BAU by 2010 than the emissions targets the proposed U.S. legislation would achieve by 2015.

Nonetheless, one of the major objections to Lieberman-Warner, which we are hearing again today in the debate over Waxman-Markey, was that it wasn’t worth doing in a world where China was doing nothing. A more rigorous assessment of what they were doing then could have produced a different assessment of that legislation. A clearer-eyed view of what we all are doing now to make progress could produce a different assessment of what we can get out of the U.S. Congress, and next, the Copenhagen meeting.

So, where do we stand now? ACES is most likely as good as the politics of this moment can possibly deliver. And when a full accounting is given of what can be achieved in terms of its carbon cap equivalent, it becomes a more attractive piece of legislation than it at first may appear. This legislation is not too ambitious for the House and Senate to eventually pass. It could be sufficient as a positive incentive to move along Copenhagen or other international treaties on climate change as well so long as we open up the playing field and allow everyone to count the full measure of their improvements in energy efficiency, intensity, and other complementary polices as part of the demonstration of how they are pulling their weight.

The community of nations needs to be open to such creative solutions to continue to make progress on climate change. In many ways, the Copenhagen process is already far more advanced, nuanced, and realistic than the Kyoto negotiations ever were. Countries are discussing the nitty gritty of greenhouse gas limits, sector by sector, and discussions of registry and verification techniques are far more detailed than ever before. The deadline that the world set for itself this coming December has become the mother of diplomatic invention. Now is the time to step up and deliver from this enormous bounty of creativity that has been spurred by this deadline.

Andrew Light and Nina Hachigian are Senior Fellows, and Julian Wong is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. To read more about the Center’s energy and environment policy proposals and our China recommendations, please go to the National Security and Energy and Environment pages of our website.

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