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Finally, the Senate Takes On Climate Change

May 29, 2008 - by Donny Shaw

In case you hadn’t heard, when the Senate reconvenes next week, they’ll be taking up a bill that, for the first time ever, would mandate economy-wide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Though historic, the bill, known as the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, is basically dead on arrival. It may no have enough of support to pass the Senate, and even if it does, President Bush has threatened to veto it. Nonetheless, it will establish a precedent for next year’s Congress to start their own climate change negotiations from. With Democrats likely to gain seats in the House and Senate, and very possibly the presidency, a similar bill will be passed and signed next year, so even if the the progress made in the debate next week gets shelved, it will probably be revived and carried forth in the bill that eventually does becomes law.

In the past week, Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has issued a revised version of the Lieberman-Warner bill (more details here) to be used as the starting point in the Senate’s debate. Boxer’s version makes several changes to the original bill, the most important of which deals directly with the most contentious and fundamental aspects of cap-and-trade: how much we will have to pay to reduce emissions.

Boxer’s version replaces the bill’s original safety valve, which would release more carbon credits into the market if they reached a certain price ceiling, with a cost-containment plan to auction off credits borrowed from future what will be available in the future to help alleviate short-term increases in cost. Kate Sheppard of Grist explains:

>This is the mechanism, also called an “emergency off-ramp,” that will automatically release additional emission allowances onto the market to lower the price of carbon credits, should prices reach a certain level. The full text of the bill states that the initial range in which that mechanism could be triggered is “no lower than $22 and no higher than $30” in 2012. From 2013 through 2027, the price will be previous year’s trigger multiplied by the sum of the annual rate of inflation and 1.05. (If you’re thinking “WTF?” you’re not alone.) These additional credits would be auctioned, and the proceeds would be used for direct emissions reductions. This is the part of the legislation likely to give greens the biggest coronary. Though it’s short of a “safety valve,” some groups have already expressed concern that this trigger is too low.

But other groups think Boxer’s cost-containment measure is an improvement. Climate Progress, a project of the Center for American Progress, has supported the idea since it was orginally proposed by a bipartisan group of senators proposed it last summer:

>So you want to have greenhouse gas standards with teeth, but you want to minimize the risk they take too big a bite from the economy. And, of course, like Climate Progress, you don’t like the safety valve idea. What do you do? Banking and borrowing of course.
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>With “banking,” the right to emit carbon can be saved for future use. With “borrowing,” current emissions are extended against future abatement.
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>What is fascinating is that today a detailed banking and borrowing proposal, “Cost-Containment for the Carbon Market,” was put forward by four moderate senators — Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and John Warner (R-Va.) — with the help of Duke University’s environmental program.

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