By FELICITY BARRINGER
Published: October 20, 2011
SACRAMENTO — Fifteen months after a similar effort died in Congress, California regulators adopted a system on Thursday for combating climate change that sets limits on greenhouse gas emissions and creates market incentives to encourage oil refineries, electricity generators and other polluters to clean up their plants.
The eight members of the Air Resources Board who were present gave a unanimous vote of approval. “We are charting new ground here,” said Lydia
. Kennard, a board member, just before the vote. “The country and the world are watching.” The plan will take effect in 2013.
The board members seemed keenly aware that they were giving the state a policy prescription regarded as poison in some parts of the country. But in an interview before the vote, the board’s chairwoman, Mary D. Nichols, invoked the state’s history of national environmental leadership, suggesting that if California acted first, the rest of the country would eventually come around.
“We are staking out new ground in the battle against global warming,” she said. “And we are doing it in difficult times and doing it in a way we believe others will want to follow.”
More than 70 people, from environmentalists to lawyers for the petroleum industry to union members fearful for their refinery jobs, addressed the board before the vote. The air regulators have been working for four years to devise an efficient system that will avoid problems that have dogged the European carbon market, like missed targets or pollution allowances that critics found too generous.
The plan arises from trailblazing legislation signed in 2006 by Arnold Schwarzenegger, then the governor, requiring California to develop regulations that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The market incentives, known as cap and trade, are considered crucial to meeting that target.
California’s ambitions are in striking contrast to those of much of the rest of the nation. A conservative political rebellion against cap and trade helped the Republican resurgence in 2010. Attacking the plan as “cap and tax,” opponents argued that it would impose excessive costs on energy industries in a weak economy.
In a cap-and-trade system, the government sets a cap on the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that refineries, chemical companies, cement plants and other businesses are allowed to release. It then issues permits to those companies allowing them to emit a certain amount.
Because some companies can rein in their emissions more easily or at less cost than other businesses, the
can profit by selling extra permits through the market to companies that find the cost of pollution-control technology prohibitive. In theory this ensures that heat-trapping gases are reduced at the lowest possible cost.
California’s nascent market already reaches beyond its borders. While most of the businesses responsible for reducing their emissions over time are based here, they can offset up to 8 percent of their emissions by buying so-called offset credits generated anywhere in the country by other ventures that cut their emissions.
Landfill operators around the Southeast have been isolating and destroying methane, for example, earning offset credits that can one day be sold on California’s carbon market. Intermediaries identify projects that are reducing emissions, verify that they are successful and seek credits for them.
This offset market cushions the polluters’ transition to expensive new technologies that scrub carbon dioxide from their emissions.
Yet skeptics of the program are not hard to come by. Steven F. Hayward, a specialist on environmental issues with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said he doubted that the new program would have much of a future.
“In the absence of a national program or even regional programs getting much traction, I don’t think this will go far,” he said. “It will probably get off with a bang, with some big early trades capturing some low-hanging fruit. But then it will wither and die an ignominious death.”
In the short run, however, there have already been economic winners. While most of the 360 projects whose offsets have been approved are landfills, the biggest winner so far in this fledgling market may be Clean Harbors, a Massachusetts company whose hazardous waste disposal operation in El Dorado, Ark., has spent years destroying old refrigerants. Known as chlorofluorocarbons, the pre-1995 refrigerants are potent greenhouse gases.
According to a list of approved offset projects prepared by the Climate Action Reserve, a nonprofit organization whose standards are nearly identical to those developed by state regulators, the Clean Harbor site in Arkansas has already offset the equivalent of 2.3 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, which translates to 2.3 million offset credits worth $10 to $11 each.
“The beauty of the California program is that it allows offsets from anywhere in the United States,” said Gary Gero, president of the Climate Action Reserve. “You don’t have to pass a litmus test that you believe in climate change,” he said. “If you think Californians are crazy, it doesn’t bar you from participating.”
The pre-1995 refrigerants, whose production is now banned worldwide because of their role in thinning the earth’s protective ozone layer, would otherwise probably have been recycled into the innards of older grocery freezer compartments.
“This is a clear case where the carbon market has provided the financial incentive to make an environmental improvement over the status quo,” said Arjun Patney, a carbon market strategist at Cargill, the agricultural and food processing giant, which markets the credits from the Arkansas operations.
Carta da Terra
"Estamos diante de um momento crítico na história da Terra, numa época em que a humanidade deve escolher o seu futuro. À medida que o mundo torna-se cada vez mais interdependente e frágil, o futuro enfrenta, ao mesmo tempo, grandes perigos e grandes promessas. Para seguir adiante, devemos reconhecer que, no meio da uma magnífica diversidade de culturas e formas de vida, somos uma família humana e uma comunidade terrestre com um destino comum. Devemos somar forças para gerar uma sociedade sustentável global baseada no respeito pela natureza, nos direitos humanos universais, na justiça econômica e numa cultura da paz. Para chegar a este propósito, é imperativo que nós, os povos da Terra, declaremos nossa responsabilidade uns para com os outros, com a grande comunidade da vida, e com as futuras gerações." (da CARTA DA TERRA)