Five Silver Bullets for the Next Attempt at Carbon Emissions Legislation

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) announced that the carbon emissions legislation, aka cap-and-trade bill, that he had hoped to move through the Senate this summer was being withdrawn. This is profoundly disappointing, and represents another example of <a href=""> Minority Rule </a>  in the US Senate. But if the carbon emissions cloud itself lacks a silver lining, the demise of the carbon emissions legislation doesn’t. So what is that silver lining? And how do we make it into silver bullets?

If you are not a corporation, you get things to happen in the US Senate by making things uncomfortable on regional scales for the corporations opposed to it. For example, the Clean Air Act was created and passed only after auto manufacturers complained that having different standards in different States made business untenable. They demanded a national standard. And a state-by-state hodge podge of efficiency standards for major appliances drove the manufacturers to demand a national standard from the Department of Energy.

Likewise, the demise of carbon emissions legislation in the Senate means that the corporations aren’t uncomfortable enough yet. There are plenty of things out there to be uncomfortable with. But they need to be ratcheted up on the grassroots level. And the upside is, that while this is more work, it ultimately results in less need to compromise and more effective piece of legislation. Here are five things we can do:


<li><strong>Regional Carbon Emissions Markets</strong> - I’ve written before about the three regional carbon emissions trading markets in North America. The Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is up and (successfully) running, creating a market for carbon emissions from power plants in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States. The Western Climate Initiative is still being organized, but will be a comprehensive carbon emissions cap and trade market, and will be the largest in North America. Finally, the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord includes seven States and Provinces in the continent’s mid section. To the extent these regional markets are successful, it becomes difficult to argue against a national program. And the benefits to those regions will soon be demanded by consumers elsewhere.

<li><strong>State-by-State Renewable Energy Portfolio Requirements</strong> - Many States already require utilities operating within their boundaries to get a certain percentage of their power from “green” sources. As power companies get used to operating this way and come to see the advantages of doing so, they become less resistant to such programs. And not coincidentally, they are better prepared – and less resistant - for the carbon emissions legislation when it comes.

<li><strong>District Energy</strong> - District Energy Associations, or Neighborhood Energy Districts, provide a means to combat carbon emissions, unplug from the power companies, and rebuild communities in a quintessential American way – independence. Neighborhoods or communities form a “district” to install and collectively benefit from renewable energy systems, cutting carbon emissions in the process. Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN) has introduced legislation that would expand the existing tax credit program for renewable energy, create a bond financing tool, and support a grant program for district energy. We need to encourage this.

<li><strong>Green Energy Programs</strong> - Many local and State governments are requiring utilities to offer “green” power to consumers, albeit at a slightly higher price. While this should be the other way around (power sources that generate carbon emissions should cost more to pay for the damage caused), these programs reinforce the drive to renewable systems with no carbon emissions. We should all participate in these programs, and get our places of business to do so as well.

<li><strong>Regional Auto Emissions Standards</strong> - When the Clean Air Act was passed, California got special clearance to maintain a stricter standard since they had the most serious problem. But the legislation also allowed other States to adopt California’s stricter standard if they desired. Several states in the Northwest and Northeast have, and this is pushing manufacturers to fleets with lower carbon emissions. We should get as many states as possible to adopt California’s standards.


So the withdrawal of the carbon emissions legislation is disappointing, and shame on those who obstructed it instead of helping to improve it. But it also gives us more time to shift the starting point for the next attempt. Let's make sure we do it.

Paul Birkeland lives in Seattle, WA, US, and develops Strategic Energy Management Systems for government, commercial, and industrial organizations through Integrated Renewable Energy.

Photo by eschipul Photostream via flickr