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U.S. Climate Bill, Regional Accords and State Leadership?

The Senate shelved climate legislation, making it unlikely that it will be passed this year. The subject has been the source of considerable concern and conversation here at the UNFCCC climate talks.
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In June, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a climate bill. It intends to reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions 17% by 2020 based on 2005 levels. The success, taken in tandem with the promise to rein in ghgs made by President Obama at the COP 15 in Copenhagen, gave some hope that the passage of a U.S. climate bill might be underway.

Yet on July 23, 2010, just a week before the current UNFCCC meeting, the U.S. Senate shelved climate legislation, making it unlikely that it will be passed this year.

The subject has been the source of considerable concern and conversation here at the UNFCCC climate talks in Bonn, Germany.

In an interview conducted the week prior to the UNFCCC, lead U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern sought to reassure, stating that the U.S. remains prepared to reduce ghg emissions.

On Monday, U.S. climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing reiterated the position, seeking to dispel frustrations about the lack of a U.S. climate bill and concern about its potential ramifications not only for the U.S. climate but also for the U.S.'s willingness to sign on to a legally binding, international agreement.

"Many of you," Pershing said, "have asked about the status of U.S domestic efforts and in particular about U.S. congressional activity. Let me respond."

"The United States is not backing away from the commitments our President made in Copenhagen. President Obama has made it clear that he remains committed to taking bold action to address the growing threat of global warming. He said so again last week."

"Passing comprehensive legislation remains the primary vehicle in our view in our country to tackle this challenge. But at the same time, we will use all the tools available to make progress... Success in Cancún does not hinge on U.S. legislation."

Alternatives: Federal Agencies, Regional Accords and State Leadership

Meanwhile, the World Resources Institute (WRI) released a report the day the Senate shelved the climate bill, asking if a 17% reduction in ghg emissions by 2020 based on 2005 levels were possible under existing federal laws and through state action.

The WRI report concluded that "the federal government and states can put the United States on a near-term course to considerably reduce greenhouse gas emissions." It based its analysis on existing EPA authority and potential state legislation.

Some states have already taken action to implement laws that rein in ghgs. In 2006, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- who attended the Copenhagen climate negotiations -- committed California to a 25% reduction in ghg emissions by 2020 based on 1990 levels through AB 32. It was the first such statewide mandate in the United States.

As Terry Tamminen, former head of California's EPA and adviser to Governor Schwarzenegger on energy and the environment pointed out: "AB 32 highlights what can be achieved. Aside from what it legislated for the state, it led to numerous regional efforts: such as the Western Climate Initiative, which led to the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Accord."

Ranking the different options, the WRI report states that while executive orders and state legislation offered "a lackluster" to "middle-of-the-road scenario", the regional accords provided a "go-getter scenario," naming three regional agreements in the U.S.: the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), the Midwestern Accord, and east coast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

The Western Climate Initiative (WCI) consists of seven western U.S. states and four Canadian provinces; the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Accord (MGA) includes six midwestern U.S. states and one Canadian province; and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) encompasses ten northeastern U.S. states.

Given the slow -- in the olden days, we used to say glacial -- pace of the international negotiations, these state and regional efforts just might be harbingers of how best to reduce ghg emissions and to address climate change in the near future, rather than waiting for an international agreement.

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