Published online 18 October 2007 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2007.179


US climate bill calls for emission caps

Compromise bill set to be first to move through US legislative process.

The US energy industry would be forced to cap its emissions... if this bill passes.Punchstock

A bipartisan group of US senators unveiled a much anticipated climate bill today, paving the way for the first legislative action on global warming under the new Democratic majority.

The legislation would require some industries to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and by a further 65% by mid-century. The emissions caps would be mandatory for some sectors of industry, including energy and transportation but not agriculture, and cover about 75% of the US economy.

Introduced by Senators John Warner (Republican, Virginia) and Joe Lieberman (Independent, Connecticut), the America's Climate Security Act also has the backing of leading Democrats. Other climate-change bills are on the US table, but this one, being bipartisan, is poised to be first to start moving through the legislative process.

“Today will be remembered as a turning point in the fight against global warming,” says Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat, California), who chairs the committee that has jurisdiction over the bill. “We have the framework here. Every single issue that any one could raise about global warming has been raised in this bill, giving us the perfect place to start.”

The short-term targets in the America's Climate Security Act are weaker than the global reductions to below 1990 levels by 2012 called for in the Kyoto agreement, which the United States has not signed up to. But they are stronger than some other proposals on the table in the United States, making it something of a compromise bill.

Early days

Advocates lauded the bipartisan agreement as a landmark achievement on an issue that has been highly polarized in the United States. But the debate is far from over. Many environmentalists are backing a competing bill — co-sponsored by Boxer — that requires even larger reductions, whereas many industry officials support a third proposal by Senators Jeff Bingaman (Democrat, New Mexico) and Arlen Specter (Republican, Pennsylvania). The Bingaman–Specter proposal would require the United States to cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2030 and make further reductions — to 60% below 2006 levels by 2050 — contingent on action by other countries.

Boxer plans to start deliberations on the bill next week, but few expect Congress to get very far on the issue this year. Democrats are still trying to craft legislation in the House, and time is running short on the legislative calendar.

Although lawmakers and some environmentalists remain hopeful that a bill could be passed by the Congress next year, a potential veto by President Bush hangs over the debate as well. Many experts expect the process to extend well into 2009 or even 2010, after a new president takes the helm.

Warts and all

“From our standpoint, it’s a good-faith political compromise, but it seems very unlikely to go very far unless President Bush does an unexpected 180 degree reversal,” says Frank O’Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch in Washington DC. “And it’s got some very significant warts.”

The bill would create a cap-and-trade system to manage carbon emissions, similar to that established under the Kyoto agreement. But the legislation would grant free emissions credits at the beginning, rather than auctioning them off to the highest bidder.

O’Donnell says that amounts to a windfall for industry. And since the bill exempts agriculture and other major sectors, he says the actual reductions in the bill come out to about 51% of overall US emissions by mid-century. 

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