Will the Kerry-Boxer bill pass in time for Copenhagen?

The details of the Kerry-Boxer bill published today - the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act – are important, of course. Senator John Kerry’s website has a wealth of explanatory material, including a useful summary and the full text of the 821-page bill. The central features, as expected, are a 20 per cent carbon dioxide emissions cut by 2020, and a cap and trade scheme for emissions, rebadged as a “pollution reduction and investment” programme.

Arguably even more important, though, is the bill’s timing. If the Senate has passed, or come close to passing, a bill to cut carbon dioxide emissions by the time of the Copenhagen climate meeting in December – now just over two months away – the chances of success at that meeting will be greatly increased.

Passing the bill will clearly not be easy. President Obama, who backed the bill today, appeared to be preparing for failure last week, when he privately told other leaders at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh that the Copenhagen talks were not “make or break” for the fight to avert the threat of climate change.

It was Bill Clinton’s failure to take Congress with him that damned the Kyoto agreement to failure. If Barack Obama can go to Copenhagen with the realistic prospect that the US will agree to cut its emissions by 20 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020, and by 80 per cent by 2050, as the Kerry-Boxer bill demands, that will strengthen enormously his ability to make a deal. The more genuine the US commitment to emissions reductions, the better will be the chances of getting China, India and other important emerging economies to sign up to significant curbs on their emissions.

On that score, there were some encouraging signs today. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, was reported as agreeing with the suggestion that the Senate was on track to pass a climate bill before the Copenhagen talks. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, issued a statement saying she looked forward to “working with my Senate colleagues to deliver to the President a comprehensive clean energy and climate bill as soon as possible to ensure the success of the Copenhagen negotiations.”

Most Washington observers have been sceptical about the chances of climate and energy legislation passing before the end of the year, particularly because of the hard pounding over president Obama’s plans for healthcare reform. That is probably still the way the smart money would bet. The excitement generated by the bill’s launch, with its messages of support from leading advocates of the fight against climate change such as Michael Bloomberg and the CEOs of Duke Energy and Exelon, will soon fade. But even so, the chances of the US playing a serious role at Copenhagen, and hence the chances of a real agreement being reached, look a little brighter today.

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