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Things You Should Know About the New Climate Bill

A new climate bill blew full force into the U.S. Senate last week. Bill sponsor Sen. John Kerry told the Washington Post that it’s important to get the bill passed or at “least be moving seriously toward it” by December, when global leaders hope to hash out a new climate treaty in Copenhagen. The U.S....


A new climate bill blew full force into the U.S. Senate last week.

Bill sponsor Sen. John Kerry told the Washington Post that it’s important to get the bill passed or at “least be moving seriously toward it” by December, when global leaders hope to hash out a new climate treaty in Copenhagen.

The U.S. draft legislation would cut greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging the development of renewable technologies such as wind and solar, as well as repurposing older technologies including natural gas and nuclear.

“There is no silver bullet. No single step is going to deal with climate change,” Kerry told the Post.

So we get it’s complex. But what, in a nutshell, should we know about the Senate bill? Green Guide spoke with Eric Haxthausen, director for U.S. climate policy at the Nature Conservancy, who told us the top five things he thinks people should know about what could be the first major climate change legislation in U.S. history.

1) We should meet a 2020 deadline. By 2020 advances in energy efficiency and clean technology will reduce climate-changing emissions from the U.S. by 20 percent below what they were in 2005, or a little more than one percent per year from where they are now. By mid-century, we will need to reduce our emissions by 80 percent or more, and the bill does this by regulating emissions on a steadily declining path.

2) Carbon dioxide emissions will be capped. The bill uses the same flexible approach that was so successful in reducing acid rain starting in the 1990s, which allowed industries to trade sulfur dioxide credits. This would set a limit on the total carbon dioxide emissions from major sources of fossil fuel combustion, such as coal-fired power plants, capping it at several percent above today’s levels and then slowly bringing it down. Power plants, refineries, and industrial sources will be required to turn in one “carbon credit,”–essentially a voucher–for each ton of carbon dioxide they emit, and businesses would be allowed to trade or bank these credits, giving them greater flexibility in meeting the law, while assuring that emissions continue to go down over time.

3) There will be incentives for sustainable technology. The bill would dramatically shift incentives in favor of efficiency and low-carbon technology, such as wind, solar, and nuclear—but provides assistance to consumers and affected businesses.

4) Protecting forests is key. The bill creates major long-term incentives for investing in protecting rain forests, the destruction of which account for some 17 percent of greenhouse gases. The bill provides incentives for U.S. companies to invest in these efforts. For instance, a utility company in a U.S. state could invest in rain forest-protection projects in Brazil or Indonesia to offset their own emissions. So a consumer could opt to get their power from a company taking part in such a partnership. People hear a lot about saving the rain forest, but this is a chance to do it. I was down in Brazil in late August to visit the Amazon rainforest in the state of Pará. One of the interesting things you see flying over the Amazon is how well-preserved the forest is in some of the indigenous reserves. This is a potent reminder that to make these conservation efforts work, they must be done in a way that protects the rights and interests of indigenous peoples and other forest-dependent communities. The bill does have protective language relating to indigenous people, including requirements for consultation and participation in the design of activities, third-party oversight, and sharing of benefits, and it plans to improve the livelihood of forest communities. Fortunately, there seems to be an emerging consensus that to do this right, you have to do it in a way that you do well by the indigenous people.

5) We need to adapt now. The bill recognizes that climate change is already happening and that we need to plan and invest now to adapt to this new reality. It would put the wheels in motion for federal and state agencies and the people who are closest to the land to begin taking steps to protect our natural heritage. For instance, conservationists are working to create wildlife corridors in the western U.S. to allow animals to migrate farther north as their habitat becomes too warm.

Haxthausen also added the bill doesn’t fully address two areas that are worth watching:

1) How will the carbon credits be distributed? A key question to be sorted out this fall that is not addressed in the bill introduced last week is how the vouchers will be distributed. Some will be auctioned, others given out with the goal of reducing costs and supporting climate-related programs. But the exact details remain to be worked out.

2) How will emission-reduction programs work? Credits for emissions reductions outside carbon caps, such as from forests or agriculture, need to be designed in a way that allows good opportunities for companies to pursue activities such as protecting forests outside the U.S. The bill offers a start at this, but some of the details may not be worked out until later in the legislative process, or further down the road when federal agencies issue regulations for implementing the law.

Christine Dell’Amore

Related links:

–Test your global warming IQ.

–Go on a carbon diet and check out other ways to save energy at home.

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Meet the Author

Christine Dell'Amore
Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.