Rhein on Energy and Climate

The decision by the US Senate to suspend its deliberations on the Energy and Climate Law, which had passed the House in the spring, should not be viewed as a catastrophe for American climate policy.

The debate during the last few months reflects the deep-rooted opposition from very powerful business forces, above all the coal and power industry, against any emission cuts. The opponents of climate legislation have no qualms to employ the most absurd arguments, including its disastrous impact on employment and the competitiveness of the US economy.

Fortunately, the US President has forceful means to overcome the stalemate.

He can either appeal to the Senate leadership to resume the legislative process, latest after the mid-term elections in early November. Or he can instruct the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prepare appropriate executive action to curb C02 emissions.

The EPA, established 50 years ago by President Nixon, is a powerful institution. It is in charge of protecting the environment and human health against environmental risks and it can intervene by executive orders. Under the Clean Air Act has it has particular responsibility to protect human health against air pollution, which includes carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to a ruling by the US Supreme Act, provided these endanger human health.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has enacted stringent fuel consumption standards for passenger and pickup cars. It has also started enacting consumption standards for appliances.

But it has still major unused tools in its drawers.

· The easiest would be to phase incandescent lamps, following the example of the EU and Australia.

· The next one, urgently needed in the USA, would be to impose tough energy consumption standards on all new buildings.

· But the single most effective measure would be to set strict C02 emission standards for power generation, e.g. by imposing on US utilities to generate rising shares of their electricity output from non-fossil (renewable) sources. By 2020, the USA should easily be able to produce as much as 20 percent of their electricity from non-fuel sources. By 2030 that percentage should reach 40 percent.

The opponents of climate legislation are fully aware of the leverage the President possesses thanks to the role of EPA. They also know that the President and Congressional leaders hesitate to fully exploit the EPA potential. Climate change is too sensitive to be handled by the executive branch of government.

That is why the opponents will most likely continue working on – weaker- legislation, thereby hoping to pre-empt more stringent executive action. The President should not be fooled by such manoeuvres and instruct the EPA to prepare a raft of measures, which would enable him to force the Congress to draft at least equivalent legislation.

The next months will be critical for the future of international climate policy. Nothing will happen on the international scene without the USA finally starting to act decisively. The Administration has no excuse to hide behind the Congress.

It is essential for the EU to closely liaise with Washington ahead of the Cancun meeting in early December. Without any visible action by the USA the EU should refrain from improving its reduction target. This would create a total impasse at Cancun by allowing China and other major polluters to hide behind the indifference of the USA.

Brussels 24.07.2010 Eberhard Rhein

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