President Barack Obama had hoped to go into the Copenhagen talks on climate change next month with a strong U.S. framework for capping carbon emissions. Instead, despite the House's hard work last summer, he will be able to offer only more promises: a proposed 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2020. The plan effectively embraces the cuts passed by the House. But it is another sign of continued momentum — at home and abroad — for capping greenhouse gas emissions. The administration needs to seize the opportunity and push Congress and businesses to embrace a new energy future.
Obama's pledge for Copenhagen has at least prodded China to offer reductions of its own, though the Chinese tied their emissions cuts to growth. At best, the two offers look like opening bids in a global negotiation that could last another year.
The Senate's plodding health care reform debate has killed any chance of a U.S. climate bill this year. But that doesn't mean debate has stood still. Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are looking for a bipartisan deal that might trade a meaningful cap on emissions — the opening target is 20 percent — for new investments in nuclear energy and so-called "clean-coal" technology. The details are too vague to embrace, but they stem from a sea change in thinking. "Climate change is real and threatens our economy and national security," the pair wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times last month.
Big business has started to accept that burning fossil fuels is not sustainable and that profits are to be made by developing clean technologies. The nation's largest generator of nuclear power, Exelon, became the third utility in recent weeks to quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over that association's opposition to climate-change legislation. Nuclear power emits virtually no greenhouse emissions, so Exelon stands to gain under a cap-and-trade system that punishes those industries that burn fossil fuels while rewarding low-emissions producers. But Exelon and other companies that have left the chamber say capping emissions is essential for jump-starting the market in clean energy and retaining U.S. competitiveness.
The chamber complains its opposition has been overstated; it wants to review the basis of an Environmental Protection Agency proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act — not challenge the science of man-made climate change. But dissident businesses say the chamber has not balanced its concerns with a clear-cut call for action. Many businesses back the cap-and-trading of emissions because it provides a financial incentive to develop clean technologies. The legislation would give business a degree of regulatory certainty, which is essential if companies are to invest in new research and manufacturing. And from a legal standpoint, laws on emissions give companies clearer guidance than rules by EPA or any other regulatory agency.
Obama may not have Congress' imprimatur going into Copenhagen, but the ground on climate change is shifting fast in the right direction. The White House needs to encourage the Senate to bring a bill to a vote. As the largest per-capita emitter of greenhouse gases, America also needs to show strong leadership abroad. Setting an example for responsible growth is the only way China — which with the United States accounts for more than a third of all global emissions — will agree to meaningful curbs. Getting India on board could be even harder. There is no more time to waste.