How fast can Obama fix US environment policy?
By Catherine Brahic For eight years the US has been seen as a global outlier on climate issues. Now, with just 12 months to go until the world decides on a new Kyoto protocol, it is catch-up time for president-elect Barack Obama. What can he reasonably achieve in that time? One of his first steps at home is likely be the adoption of cap-and-trade legislation. This would set the foundation for carbon trading: as in the European Union, the amount of greenhouse gases that industries can lawfully emit would be limited (the “cap”), and companies would have to either buy emission permits or find ways of reducing their emissions. Some states and companies have voluntarily come together to set up their own carbon-emissions market, but the Bush administration has always held that a federal system would harm the economy. There seems little doubt that the nation will eventually adopt a cap-and-trade bill and to this end legislators on Capitol Hill have been preparing the ground for several years. Obama is among those who has backed a federal cap-and-trade bill in 2007, and earlier this year, one version failed to get through the Senate. How quickly a new bill could be passed is the subject of much speculation. Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute says it is feasible that a cap-and-trade bill could be adopted before the end of 2009. Others are more cautious, Senator Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico democrat who has been active on climate change and who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, thinks 2010 is more likely. Bingaman says energy legislation focusing on developing alternative energy sources and improving energy efficiency is likely to be passed before climate-change legislation. “I think the reality is that it may take more than the first year to get it all done,” says Bingaman. Once energy legislation passes, “I think our prospects for moving ahead and seriously considering and enacting cap-and-trade legislation is improved,” he adds. Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, agrees with Bingaman that a US cap-and-trade law is “much more likely in 2010”. Bingaman cites the complexity of the enterprise and the current financial crisis as factors that could slow the process down in Congress. In addition, there are rumours of alternative Republican-led legislation that could further delay matters. Obama is also left in the difficult situation of having to watch the out-going Bush administration attend the annual UN climate summit in Poznań, Poland, next month. At last year’s summit in Bali, after two weeks of intense negotiations and sleepless nights, delegates agreed in the eleventh hour to adopt a successor to the Kyoto protocol in December 2009. The Poznań summit is hoped to pave the way for this agreement. There is a campaign underway for Obama to go to Poznań, but few believe he will. Instead, he is expected to send an observer. All this means expectations for radically different US climate leadership will be piled high on Obamas desk when he takes over the Oval Office on 20 January, 2009. At a conference on carbon trading that took place on Wednesday, an environmental advisor to Obama sought to reassure business and policy-making experts. “The president-elect will move quickly on climate change,” said Jason Grumet, Obama’s lead energy and environment campaign adviser and possible choice for the new energy secretary. “My suggestion to all of you is to enjoy the holiday season and rest up because I think it’s going to be a very, very busy 2009,” he said He offered no specifics and answered no questions. He noted that the US has operated “a federal climate programme with mandatory elements, for many, many years now.” More on these topics: