Waxman-Markey Bill: No Cuts until 2026!

Allowable US Emissions under Waxman-Markey
Allowable US Emissions under Waxman-Markey
While there is much to praise about the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, the climate section of the draft bill is seriously weakened by its heavy reliance on offsets to substitute for actual emissions cuts by large polluters.

Take a look at the initial analysis by International Rivers and Rainforest Action Network of the offsets provisions in the draft bill, or read below for the highlights.

The bill eventually caps 85% of all US greenhouse gas emissions, mainly from fossil fuels and industrial processes. But a polluter can purchase an offset "credit", essentially a permit to pollute beyond the cap. The offsets can be purchased from sectors in the US not subject to emissions caps (such as farming, ranching, forestry and landfills) or from developing countries. The bill allows up to two billion offsets each year (one billion domestic, one billion international) - each supposedly an avoided emission of one metric ton of carbon dioxide. This is equivalent to almost 30% of 2005 emissions!

The rationale is that since there is only one atmosphere, it doesn't care where the emissions occur. The problem is that it is not possible to ensure the additionality of these credits - i.e. "that every credit represents real, measureable, and long-term reductions in emissions," as concluded by the Government Accountability Office in a November 2008 report (see our earlier blog). Our analysis of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the world's largest carbon offset scheme, suggests that upwards of 75% of projects that received offsets were not additional.

The draft bill establishes a regulatory structure that is based upon the CDM's approval process. But experience with the CDM indicates that such a regulatory structure is unlikely to ensure that most offsets represent real emission reductions. Furthermore the shear number of offsets that the draft bill allows is almost seven times larger than the CDM expects to generate annually between 2008-2012. In order to meet potential demand, the US system will be under pressure to favor a speedy and unrigorous approvals process.

What does this mean in terms of greenhouse gas emissions? If polluters indeed use the maximum allowable number of offset credits, domestic emissions in 2012 would increase by 38% rather than decrease by 3%, the reduction that the cap sets. Emissions would not dip below 2005 levels until 2026, 17 years from today (see Figure). If all eligible offsets were used, the 20% reduction supposed to happen by 2020 would not actually be reached until 2036. The reduction in 2050 would be only 50% rather than the stated 83% (see Figure). These reductions are clearly not enough to prevent global temperature from rising by more than two degrees Celsius (3.6o F), a threshold that many scientists believe will lead to dangerous consequences, if crossed.

The energy provisions in the Waxman-Markey bill could lead to the urgently needed transformation in how the US produces and consumes energy. Unfortunately the offsetting provisions in the climate action part of the bill considerably weaken its potential to drive down US emissions to the levels necessary to avoid climate chaos. Fortunately the Waxman-Markey bill is only a draft and can still be saved. Removing offset provisions from the bill, or significantly curtailing them, would prevent offsets from undermining the environmental integrity of the bill.