United States climate policy: what’s next? epa regulations as an alternative pathway to comprehensive federal action?

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Dec 012011

Camille Serre (Sciences Po), Emmanuel Guérin (IDDRI), Alexander Ochs (Worldwatch) 

Working Paper published by IDDRI, Worldwatch Institute & SciencePo, December 2011, http://www.iddri.org/Publications/Collections/Idees-pour-le-debat/WP%201511_CS%20EG%20AO_US%20EPA%20regulations.pdf

The United States finds itself in a schizophrenic situation: its domestic climate policy has clearly been in a stalemate since the Congress failed to adopt comprehensive climate and energy legislation in 2010. On the  other hand, U.S. delegates confirmed the target of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 17% by 2020 compared to 2005 levels at the  Cancún UN climate summit in December 2010. How then will the U.S. fulfill its international obligations without being able to reach a consensus at home? While climate policies at state and regional levels show some encouraging signs, the extent to which the diffusion of climate initiatives across states could gain momentum is still uncertain.

Shifting back from a market-based approach to a command-and-control approach, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulations seem to be the only viable improvement at the federal level. The EPA set exante GHG emissions standards for a given pollutant by industry sector, based on available and cost-efficient technologies. And it also provides not directly GHG-related regulations which could indirectly help the U.S. curb its GHG emissions trajectory.

Yet, in a highly politicized context, EPA regulations are only a second best option, which cannot make up for comprehensive Congress-adopted climate policy in the long-run: it is doubtful that they can alone manage to trigger a relevant infrastructure change. Technological and emissions standards are one piece of the required policy mix, and should be backed up by complementary policies. But in the current tense, partisan and unpredictable context, no clear investment signals can be sent to shift to a low-carbon economy.

[Find the whole paper HERE]

“Obama is not the problem” – Interview with Alexander Ochs on the current debate about U.S. Climate and Energy Policy

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May 052011

[This is the translation of my recent interview for the Italian magazin e La Nuova Ecologia] 

1)      Can you explain to our Italian readers what the current status of Climate Change legislation is in the United States?

The situation in the United States is a bit tricky to understand for European observers due to the country’s complicated political system of “divided government” that provides “checks and balances” between the executive and legislative governmental branches. The House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy & Security Act, a far-reaching climate and energy bill in June 2009. This was the first time that a chamber of the U.S. parliament – or “Congress” – passed a bill that sets mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions: 17 percent emission reductions below 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. The decision was very tight with a vote of 219-212, with 211 Democrats and only 8 Republicans supporting the bill. Since the House legislation has passed, all focus is on the Senate, the second chamber of the Congress. Here, Democrats Barbara Boxer and John Kerry introduced the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act in September of last year. This bill would reduce greenhouse gas emissions 3 percent below 2005 levels by 2012, 20% by 2020, 42% by 2030, and 83% by 2050. The bill also includes massive public investment in clean energy and carbon capture and storage (CCS) research. While hailed by environmentalist, from the moment of its introduction the 821 pages of the Kerry-Boxer bill have faced fierce opposition from Republican lawmakers and Conservative commentators as too complicated, too wide-ranging, and too costly. It is clear that the bill will not be passed in its original version.

 2)      So what happens next?

There is now an additional bill that has gained some attention: First, the Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal Act, introduced in December 2009 by Senators Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins. With more modest mandatory caps below 2012 levels of 5% by 2020 and 80% below by 2050, this legislation tries to find new middle ground for the climate change and energy debate. Most importantly, it would create a “cap and dividend” system that gives up to 75% of the revenue generated from auctioning of pollution permits to American households to offset the likely rise in energy costs after companies get regulated. The remaining revenues go into a fund intended to continue energy research and transition to a clean energy economy. In order to securely pass the Senate, any climate bill will need 60 votes. Currently, I would estimate the numbers of very probable supporters in the low 40s. About one third of the Senators are passionately opposed. The rest are fence sitters that will decide whether there will be climate legislation in the United States or not.

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From Flop’enhagen to Can’tcun? US climate policy before the mid-term elections and the UN summit

 magazine article  Comments Off on From Flop’enhagen to Can’tcun? US climate policy before the mid-term elections and the UN summit
Oct 202010
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co2_climateIt all started so nicely. The hope for change that Barack Obama had raised among American voters was felt by citizens worldwide, including those yearning for a change in US environmental policy. After all, Obama had made global warming and energy policy important cornerstones of his campaign. Once in the White House, the newly elected President explained that “few challenges facing America – and the world – are more urgent than combating climate change” and that his “presidency will mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change.” Repeatedly he stressed that “the nation that wins this competition [for new energy technologies] will be the nation that leads the global economy.”

What’s left, as we approach mid-term elections in Obama’s first administration, is a very mixed bag.  There have been important successes, including over $60 billion that were earmarked for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009; the first tightening of Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards in three decades; and the federal Environmental Protection Agency ‘s “Endangerment Finding” that recognizes, as a follow-up of the Supreme Court ruling Massachusetts et al. vs. EPA, that the  agency  has the right to regulate greenhouse gases as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. To the great disappointment of the environmentalists, however, comprehensive climate and energy legislation, including a market-based system with mandatory economy-wide emission targets as well as strong incentives for the employment of energy efficiency measures and renewable energy technologies, has not been passed.

The situation that has unfolded over the last 1 ½  years is almost absurd. A White House and all involved secretaries and agencies support strong climate policy; a majority of the public wants effective climate action; a thorough climate and energy bill finally passed the House; and then there is also majority support for climate legislation in the Senate – albeit this majority is not filibuster-proof. The Senate’s leadership was unable to get 60+ votes. And here the story ends for now. A minority of 40+ Senators puts a hold on domestic legislation and shuts a historic window of opportunity.

[This article appered in Bridges vol. 27, October 2010. Read the rest of the article here: http://www.ostina.org/content/view/5229/1390/]

The World Looks to Americans and Europeans

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Nov 042009
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

As a former Minister of the Environment turned Chancellor, Angela Merkel had already proven those wrong who surmised that environment positions are a dead end to high-rising political aspirations; now she became only the second German politician (after Konrad Adenauer, the first head of a German government after the Second World War, in 1957) who received the honor to address the U.S. Congress; and as a widely respected leader on environmental issues who is, at the same time, the leader of a conservative party, she would be well positioned to appeal to cautious Republicans when talking about climate change and energy reformation—at least I had hoped so in a recent interview with Reuters.

Angela Merkel in her speech on Capitol Hill yesterday, just weeks after her reelection for a second term (this time as a leader of a center-right coalition) was moved by the honor and the standing ovations she received from U.S. lawmakers even before she had started her speech. Following up on her promises, she spent a good portion of her talk on climate change, urging Congress and the Obama administration to take bold steps to address the issue, in her view one of the “great tests” of the 21st century. “We all know we have no time to lose,” she said.

Read the rest of the story on Dateline: Copenhagen.