More info on the US House Climate Change Bill

From today’s Washington Post:

Q and A on the Climate Bill

By David A. Fahrenthold and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 5, 2009 7:21 PM

The climate bill approved by the House last month started out as an idea — fight global warming — and wound up looking like an unabridged dictionary. It runs to more than 1,400 pages, swollen with loopholes and giveaways meant to win over un-green industries and wary legislators.

Here are answers to some key questions about the bill.

How would it work?

The legislation sponsored by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) would set a limit on greenhouse gas emissions and gradually tighten it. Major emitters of greenhouse gases — including any business that burns fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas or coal — would have to reduce their emissions or buy allowances, which would be traded on markets like commodities. This would be the first economy-wide limit on greenhouse gases in the United States; Europe has had a similar system in place for years.

Would this bill stop climate change?

No. Even if it works exactly as planned — delivering a 17 percent reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 compared with 2005 levels — it might not slow down the rate of climate change by very much.

That is because emissions are a global problem: Greenhouse gases contribute to the Earth’s warming whether they are emitted in China or in Chevy Chase. Even if the United States meets the legislation’s goals for 2020, the world’s total emissions would be reduced by about 3 percent, according to Energy Department projections.

That would be a start, environmentalists say. Usually emissions grow as the economy grows, so a 17 percent cut would be a huge feat for the energy industry. But scientists say that far deeper cuts are needed to head off disaster from warming temperatures, rising sea levels and other climate changes. The legislation would require reductions of 42 percent by 2030 and 83 percent by 2050.

What will all this change cost, and who will pay?

Less than 50 cents per household per day, according to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Congressional Budget Office. And that does not take into account benefits from avoiding hard-to-calculate costs associated with accelerating climate change.

According to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, the cost would be much steeper: $11.78 per day in the coming decades. According to House Republicans, the costs would cripple the U.S. economy and drive American jobs to countries that do not have climate regulations.

These costs are a mix of higher prices for carbon-based fuels — the whole idea of a cap-and-trade system — offset by a complex series of tax breaks and free allowances, new technologies and behavioral changes, and impacts on corporations and their profits.

Any estimate is tough to make because it is difficult to forecast exactly how the system would work and what new technologies will emerge. New technologies might make it cheaper to turn wind and sunlight into electricity, or make it possible for coal plants to capture carbon dioxide on a wide scale and store it underground.

Or they might not: It is difficult to forecast the effect of inventions still un-invented. Photovoltaic cells are similar to computer chips, whose prices keep falling, but carbon capture and storage is largely uncharted territory.

What did Waxman and Markey give away to get the bill passed?

Plenty. But the compromises — with the possible exception of one involving agriculture interests — would affect who pays the costs of cutting greenhouse gases, without undermining the emission targets.

What Waxman and Markey gave away were free emission allowances during a transition period of 10 to 20 years. The biggest chunks would reduce costs for certain companies and consumers, especially those reliant on coal. Other allowances would essentially be subsidies, going to states, a new clean-energy bank, forestry groups, automakers, and others that would sell them and use the proceeds.

Who loses in these compromises?

The federal government. Under President Obama’s initial proposal, the federal government would have auctioned off 100 percent of the emission allowances under the cap. The Waxman-Markey bill would auction off about 15 percent to start with and would not phase out the free stuff until 2030. During the program’s first 10 years, a full auction could have pumped an extra $713 billion in revenue into the Treasury. That could have been used to slash the deficit, pay for health care, cut payroll taxes or fund energy research. Obama had proposed a combination of energy aid for lower-income households and an extension of a temporary tax cut approved this year.

Who benefits?

— Local electricity distribution companies that rely heavily on coal would get 35 percent or more of the allowances through 2025. Local utility regulators would decide whether costs can be passed through to consumers, but the Waxman-Markey bill has provisions designed to ensure that the benefits of free allowances flow to consumers.

That is great politics. But it means consumers would not have as much financial incentive for energy-efficient home improvements. The bill would still send powerful signals to anyone building a power plant, which is expected to last long after the phase-out of the proposed free allowances.

— Energy-intensive manufacturers, such as those that make aluminum, glass or steel. These firms are worried about competition from countries such as China and India, which do not price greenhouse gases. These firms would get 10 to 15 percent of allowances for most of a decade. (A tariff would take effect in 2020 for goods from countries still lacking carbon prices.)

— Various companies and agencies. According to Point Carbon, a market analysis firm, rural electricity firms would get an extra $6.4 billion worth of allowances thanks to an amendment to the bill. Three-quarters of 1 percent of all allowances would go to about a half-dozen small, independent oil refiners, said Kevin Book, managing director of research at ClearView Energy Partners; major oil refiners would get 2 percent of allowances. Automakers would need allowances to cover only their manufacturing emissions, not tailpipe emissions. But they would still get 3 percent of allowances for six years, then 1 percent of allowances for eight more.

Companies working on carbon capture and storage would get as much as 5 percent of allowances.

In the initial years, state governments would get 10 percent of allowances, which they would sell to finance a range of energy-efficiency activities, including mass transit.

An additional 5 percent of allowances would help groups fighting deforestation. They would sell the allowances to fund projects in places such as Brazil, Indonesia and China.

What could go wrong?

The bill’s success depends heavily on carbon offsets. These are official certificates given for greenhouse gases that might have been emitted but were not or for emissions that were somehow removed from the atmosphere.

U.S. polluters could buy them and pay someone else to reduce emissions, instead of doing it themselves. But, if some offsets turn out to be bogus, the climate loses and the system bleeds credibility.

The idea behind overseas offsets is that foreign companies might be able to reduce their emissions more cheaply than U.S. firms could here. That would provide an equal benefit to the climate at a lower cost. It also might prompt foreign companies to buy emissions-reducing technology made in America.

If the government does not allow offsets from overseas, the EPA estimates, this might drive up the price of carbon credits, the allowances that polluters need for each ton of greenhouse gases emitted, up by 89 percent.

But some critics say that it will be difficult to verify whether an overseas company really reduces its emissions — and show that these reductions would not have happened on their own. Offsets make political targets, too. “I’m sure our constituents want our money shipped overseas to plant trees,” House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said sarcastically during debate on the measure.

“I think people will buy the offsets,” said Kenneth P. Green, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “The question is whether or not the offsets, especially the foreign ones, can be validated and meaningful.”

What about U.S. farmers?

U.S. agriculture interests won two key concessions. Unlike interest groups that won free allowances, the agriculture concessions could undermine the cap. That is because the bill would put the Agriculture Department, instead of the EPA, in charge of agricultural offsets. Those could include credits for tillage techniques that would minimize carbon dioxide emissions. If the Agriculture Department is too lax with standards or credits for long-standing practices, it could mean little change in emissions.

What else is in the legislation?

A lot. It is called a cap-and-trade bill, but key portions are about regulation. The provisions would act as backstops, cutting emissions even if the cap-and-trade system does not work as advertised.

One section would require new coal-fired power plants to emit 50 percent less carbon dioxide than existing plants do. Plants licensed after 2020 would have to cut emissions by 65 percent. Other parts would establish more energy-efficient building standards and order the phasing out of hydrofluorocarbon, a refrigerant that is a strong greenhouse gas.

Finally, the legislation would establish a nationwide renewable electricity standard, requiring utilities to meet 20 percent of their 2020 power needs from renewable energy sources or energy efficiency. The generous set-asides for efficiency and the definitions of renewables make this standard weaker than those most states have already adopted.

How will the world view this?

This might be the most surprising answer of all: A bill swimming in bureaucratic minutiae might make its biggest impact as a broad-stroke idea, a symbol that the United States is serious about climate change.

“It really sends a signal to the international community that one of the largest emitters means business,” said Elizabeth Perera of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group. If that persuades other large-scale polluters such as China to set their own emissions standards, Perera said, the world might get the major reductions that scientists say are needed.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

Reef Relief: Queensland Government enacts new leglisation on the GBR


In a major step to protecting the inshore reefs of the GBR, the Queensland Government have inacted fairly dramatic legislation on the use of fertilisers and pesticides on farms in the reef catchment. Under the new rules, farmers in the Mackay-Whitsunday, Burdekin Dry Tropics and Far North’s Wet Tropic catchments must keep records on fertiliser usage and apply ‘no more than the optimum amount of fertiliser to their soil’. The use of the pesticides Atrazine, Diuron, Ametryn, Hexazinone or Tebuthiuron are also subject to an array of new rules and regulations.

Although not without controversy, this is great news for the reefs on the GBR. Over 32,000 tonnes of fertiliser (worth $32 million) leaches out into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon every year through overfertilisation on farms. There is strong scientific evidence showing that elevated pesticide and nutrients from the land associated with flood waters induce coral bleaching and mortality during flood years (see here for a great post by Jon Brodie on the subject).

Strict controls on fertilisers and pesticides and close monitoring of large and high-risk farms in north Queensland will help heal the Great Barrier Reef, Climate Change and Sustainability Minister Kate Jones said today.

Ms Jones, introducing the Great Barrier Reef Protection Bill 2009 to State Parliament, said the legislation would reduce the levels of farm chemicals and sediment harming the Reef.

“The Bill will help detox the Great Barrier Reef and give it a fighting chance,” Ms Jones said.

“The Great Barrier Reef is Australia’s most treasured possession and is worth nearly $6 billion to our economy, supporting about 63,000 jobs.

“But its health has been deteriorating from a number of factors, including damaging run-off from sugar cane fields and beef cattle farms in Reef catchments.

“We must do all we can to ensure this natural wonder of the world survives long after us and that means minimising man-made harm. This Bill is good for the Reef and it makes good business sense for farmers.

“While many farmers are doing the right thing and have minimised their impact, we must go further than the voluntary approach to get the results we need faster.

“Our Reef is too precious so we have no option but to act now and act decisively.

“The Bligh Government told Queenslanders last election that we would regulate to reduce the amount of fertiliser and pesticides entering the Reef by 50 per cent in four years.

“The Bill makes good on that commitment. It’s backed by strong scientific evidence and it gives the Reef every chance of recovering from the damage inflicted by over-fertilising, toxic pesticides and soil run-off.”(Link to media release)

US ‘global warming bill’ one step closer?


“House Panel Passes Limit on Greenhouse-Gas Emissions” – Washington Post, 22nd May 2009
A bill to create the first national limit on greenhouse-gas emissions was approved by a House committee yesterday after a week of late-night debates that cemented the shift of climate change from rhetorical jousting to a subject of serious, if messy, Washington policymaking.

The legislation would create a cap-and-trade system: Over the next decades, power plants, oil refineries and manufacturers would be required to obtain allowances for the pollution they emit. Those who need more or less could turn to a Wall-Street-like market in the allowances. The 33 to 25 vote was a major victory for House Democrats, who had softened and jury-rigged the bill to reassure manufacturers and utilities — and members of their own party from the South and Midwest — that they would not suffer greatly.

The vote gives this bill more momentum than any previous legislation to reduce greenhouse gases, but it faces hurdles. In the House, Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) has said he wants to take up the bill in his Agriculture Committee, seeking to change rules for those who raise corn for ethanol. The Senate has shot down previous cap-and-trade plans.

President Obama supports the bill, an aide said yesterday, though some provisions are weaker than what he advocated during the presidential campaign. In particular, Obama called for all pollution credits to be auctioned off by the government, but the House bill would give away about 85 percent of them.
(Read more at Washington Post)

Microdocs and podcasts

ANU environmental podcast
Australian National University are podcasting a series of lectures and seminars on the environment, and are covering some hard hitting topics, ranging from policy and economy to oceanography (several of which I might not entirely agree with) . Below are three of the best – see the full listing here.

The microdoc project: ‘short attention span science videos’
Steve Palumbi and colleagues at Stanford University have produced an exceptional collection of microdocs (2-3 minute documentaries on a single topic), focused around a central theme of “Sustainability on Coral Reefs”. To paraphrase Rick McPherson, microdocs ‘take on macro ocean issues’, and are a great way to get key messages on ecological sustainability and coral reefs across to the media, general public and schools. The Stanford microdocs website has a full listing of all microdocs, and below are some of the highlights:

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Did global warming stop after 1998?

Anyone who has an interest in exploring patterns in global temperature should take a look  around Paul Clark, a British software developer and “practically-oriented environmentalist and conservationist” has developed an online interface that allows anyone to go examine basic longterm trends in climate time series data (including the HADCRUT3 / GISTEMP Global Temperature & HADSST2 Sea Surface Temperature, along with sunspot activity and CO2 datasets).

The interface is incredibly intuitive, and allows a variety of transformations, averaging and trend estimations within graphs. After having spent literally hours playing around on this site, I completely agree with the warnings of ‘cherry picking‘ a dataset (i.e. choosing a certain year to start the trend to exacerbate a trend). To illustrate this ‘technique’, Paul has produced this classic graph:


Which goes to show that the temperature is either: 1) falling,  2) static, 3) rising, or 4) rising ‘really fast!’ -all depending on where you place the trendline.

As John eloquently explained in this comment a few days ago, “global warming stopped after 1998” is turning into one of the most common memes of the ‘skeptics’ and ‘deniers’. Alot of their argument relies on very heavily cherry-picked data – skeptical Science also have a great in detail discussion and counterpoint to this argument here. Contrast the above graph with the longer term view (consistent across multiple datasets), showing warming between 0.13-0.17°C/decade:


New book release: The Great Barrier Reef

“The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is 344,400 square kilometres in size and is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. This comprehensive guide describes the organisms and ecosystems of the Great Barrier Reef, as well as the biological, chemical and physical processes that influence them. Contemporary pressing issues such as climate change, coral bleaching, coral disease and the challenges of coral reef fisheries are also discussed.

In addition,the book includes a field guide that will help people to identify the common animals and plants on the reef, then to delve into the book to learn more about the roles the biota play.

Beautifully illustrated and with contributions from 33 international experts, The Great Barrier Reef is a must-read for the interested reef tourist, student, researcher and environmental manager. While it has an Australian focus, it can equally be used as a baseline text for most Indo-Pacific coral reefs”

(View sample pdf or see CSIRO publishing website for ordering information)

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Advice for Obama: improving the management of ocean ecosystems

Now that he won the election, everyone has advice for Barack Obama on how he should govern and what policies he should support and focus on.  Given the importance of ocean ecosystems and coral reefs, shouldn’t we get into the act?  In fact, several individuals and organizations are drafting advice on environmental policy, pressing environmental issues, etc.  Dr. Steve Carpenter (a prominent limnologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA), recently posted his advice for Obama on the Ecolog lister server (an international discussion board for ecologists).  Ill insert his letter to Obama below, but his four main recommendations are:

Decrease America’s dependency on coal and oil and increase the supply of energy from non-polluting technologies.

Stop subsidizing agriculture that destroys land, water and health.

Have a population policy.

Invest in the education and innovation needed to create a society that could thrive in the 21st century and beyond.

Andrew Revkin at the New York Times blog dot earth recently discussed environmental advice for Obama, particularly that related to climate change.

Dr. Paul Erlich of Stanford University and “The Population Bomb” fame has made his own recommendations for making our society more sustainable that you can read about here.  They include; One: Put births on a par with deaths and Two: Put conserving on a par with consuming.

As part of the Year of The Reef celebration, a consortium of groups put together a list of 25 things individuals can do to save coral reefs.  (personally, I think most of their suggestions are silly and would be ineffectual)

And even former vice president Al Gore has contributed his two cents in a recent New York Times op ed “The Climate for Change“.

So what advice should we, as marine scientists, conservationists and advocates, give to Obama?  Ill make a pitch for a few policies and issues below, but I’d really like to hear from other climate shifts authors and readers what they recommend.

1) Implement a series of no-take marine reserves. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that marine reserves work and have tangible benefits outside their boundaries for people and ecosystems.  Less than 1% of the ocean is fully protected.  We should be protecting closer to 30 or 40% of all marine habitats.  We should also insulate the management of our fisheries from local politics as much as possible, so that managers can make more decisions based on science.

2) Radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions nationally and facilitate international reductions by heavily investing in clean technologies, smart urban and social planning, etc.  Or as Al Gore argues:

We can make an immediate and large strategic investment to put people to work replacing 19th-century energy technologies that depend on dangerous and expensive carbon-based fuels with 21st-century technologies that use fuel that is free forever: the sun, the wind and the natural heat of the earth.

3) Increase the federal budget for ocean research, observing and exploration tenfold. Currently, the US space program (NASA) receives 700X more federal funding than the US government allocates for all combined ocean sciences.  Given the enormous social and economic importance of the oceans and the rate at which ocean ecosystems are being degraded, this is simply crazy.  Despite what you may hear from some advocates, we simply don’t have realistic solutions to many environmental problems and we won’t without a greater investment in basic ocean science.  There is so much about marine ecosystems that we don’t understand and in lots of cases we don’t even have the resources to quantify and/or forecast the impacts of various human activities.

So, what do YOU recommend president-elect Obama do?

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