Copenhagen Crisis: Why the US Needs Cap and Trade


Caribou migration, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 2002;
photograph by Subhankar Banerjee from his series ‘Oil and the Caribou’

It is often argued that cap and trade legislation requires too many compromises with—and give-aways to—polluting corporations to pass the House and Senate, and that consequently it is ineffective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While environmentalists are failing to support cap and trade, those opposing action on climate change are fiercely attacking it. Yet such a system is essential when it comes to getting global action on climate change—not least at the increasingly imperilled climate summit in Copenhagen in December—for it delivers a transparent benchmark by which nations can judge each other’s commitment.

To state the obvious, cap and trade—by putting caps on the emissions of the principal polluting industries across the economy while letting carbon emitters buy and sell carbon permits among themselves—mandates an overall cap on a nation’s emissions. The Waxman-Markey bill, for example—which passed in the House in June but must now be reconciled with the bill now being debated in the Senate—seeks to limit US emissions, by 2020, to between 14 and 17 percent below what they were in 2005. This means that overall US emissions would, after two centuries of growth, peak around 2015–2016, and then begin a slow decline. And this would occur despite all the give-aways and concessions included in the legislation, such as the free allocation of permits (rather than their purchase) to polluting industries.

The Waxman-Markey bill won the support of major electricity generators and major polluters alike, and these industries continue to support Senate legislation such as the Kerry-Boxer bill. The main opposition is now coming from small and middle-sized manufacturers and other businesses, which fear declining competitiveness due to energy price rises. (Through the Chambers of Commerce in each state, these interests are now lobbying Senators to oppose the legislation, and this trenchant opposition—including from some Democrats—along with the time required for a bill to pass through the Senate process, means that the US will go to the global climate talks in Copenhagen with no domestic cap and trade system in place.

It’s sometimes argued that the European experience with cap and trade shows that it doesn’t work. But this is simply untrue: the European legislation is on target to deliver the full 8 percent of reductions below 1990 levels promised by 2012, and furthermore it has left Europe with an appetite for even steeper reductions in future. Europeans have unilaterally decided to reduce emissions by 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and have offered to increase that to a 30 percent reduction if the rest of the world agrees to take action. Cap and trade clearly works, which is why the lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry are resisting it so fiercely.

If the US arrives at the global climate talks in Copenhagen without the prospect of getting a cap and trade bill through Congress, this will destroy the possibility of a new climate treaty, for without a clear signal from the US, nations such as Canada and Australia, which have signed the Kyoto Protocol, are likely to back away from national caps as well, leaving any new agreement even more toothless than Kyoto.

The question then arises as to how such countries might enter into any global agreement. For the US, the most likely mechanism is regulation of greenhouse gas emission by the Environmental Protection Agency in a variety of ways, including setting fuel efficiency standards for coal-fired power plants. This might well reduce emissions, but it’s impossible to establish a national cap using such regulation. Likewise, a carbon tax might help, but it won’t lead to a national cap, and without such a cap it’s unclear just what the US is bringing to the table in terms of an overall goal to reduce the global burden of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Unless a treaty based on cap and trade gains the support of the US and other advanced countries, it’s hard to see how a cap on the emissions of developed countries will be achieved, and without such a cap, it’s just not clear how overall greenhouse gas emissions will be controlled.

Subhankar Banerjee’s photographs addressing the effects of climate change and industrial development on the Alaskan Arctic, and a video narrated by Gwich’in elder Sarah James, will be featured in the exhibition ‘(Re-) Cycles of Paradise,’ at the UN Climate Change Conference, Copenhagen, December 7–18, 2009. The exhibition is organized by ARTPORT making waves and commissioned by the Global Gender and Climate Alliance. To see more of Banerjee’s photographs, readers can visit

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in