The new US president will rely on Congress to push American action on climate change, argues Emily Farnworth

There was a consensus on all sides to make bold commitments that would curb US greenhouse gas emissions ahead of the US presidential election. So, the new president will be faced with three options to address climate change.

First, the president could use the US Environmental Protection Agency to put a cap on greenhouse gas emissions using the Clean Air Act as justification. However, this would require spending a significant amount of political capital, which presidents usually save for their highest priority issues. With a poor economy and high energy prices, neither candidate is likely to spend much capital on a policy that still does not have overwhelming public support.

Second, the president could use his “bully pulpit” from the White House to encourage Congress to address climate change. Again, this would require spending precious political capital that a new president would not want to cash in for climate policy, especially when many are calling for increased domestic drilling for fossil fuels.

Third, and this is by far the most likely choice, the next president could simply say that global warming is an issue for Congress to address. He will thereby be able to maintain his campaign position to address the issue by saying that if Congress passes legislation, he will sign it.

How long it will take Congress to do that is a different matter. Although there is still hope that the US will sign up to a post-Kyoto deal, the new president will not have long to get ready for world climate talks in Copenhagen in December 2009. US legislation would ideally need to be in place before that and hopefully Congress will act quickly and aggressively to deliver.

Knowing this, it is easy to be frustrated about how little political attention and urgency climate change is receiving once you scratch beneath the surface. However, there are two basic levers that could still result in meaningful US carbon emission reductions.

In the US, the high cost of energy has been used as a tool to promote more domestic oil drilling by lifting bans on offshore exploration, often couched in language that suggests more domestic drilling will ease dependence on imported oil and will benefit national security.

Fuel costs

Soaring energy costs also provide an effective argument for pursuing renewable alternative sources of energy, but although there has been some progress this has not yet been supported by policy.

Under the next presidency, we will probably see increased efforts towards energy efficiency and energy conservation. While clear and consistent policy direction on climate change would be preferable to the vagaries of the market, cutting energy waste will benefit the planet as well as making US companies more profitable and competitive.

In the meantime, we are seeing a growing policy response at a state and regional level, which has the potential to lay the groundwork for national action. US states are proving useful laboratories for low carbon development.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) was launched on September 25 and is the first mandatory, market-based effort in the US to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Ten north-eastern and mid-Atlantic states will cap and then reduce CO2 emissions from the power sector by 10% by 2018.

States will sell emission allowances through auctions and invest proceeds in consumer benefits: energy efficiency, renewable energy and other clean energy technologies. The RGGI will spur innovation in the clean energy economy and create green jobs in each state – a win-win situation.

California has recently released a second economic assessment plan of implementing the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. This new report contains more detail than the previous one, but its conclusions were broadly similar: moving forward with plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions will benefit the economy, and provide jobs and new sources of economic activity.

Despite earlier pronouncements on climate change, the new president will not be able to advance a vision of a low carbon America without the support of Congress. This will require dramatic shifts in attitude from representatives from the midwest and southern states.

While the US may lose a few pounds of carbon simply through cost-cutting measures, as companies and consumers seek to economise, the world will not be able to look forward to meaningful action from the US to address global warming until Congress adopts a more consistent and proactive approach. But at least from January, the world will not be faced with a US president who actively blocks progress on the issue.

Emily Farnworth is director of the corporate leadership programme at The Climate Group.

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