After years of doing nothing on global warming, Congress may now be on the verge of a serious, bipartisan effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

You might think environmentalists would be elated.  You would be wrong.  The problem is this: the "America's Climate Security Act"  bill unveiled on Thursday (10/18) by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Independent from Connecticut, and Sen. John Warner, Republian from Virginia, uses a pollution credit trading system to achieve relatively modest reductions. And it allows carbon "offsets" -- in other words, it allows companies to pay cash instead of reducing their pollution.

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Europe tried a pollution credit trading system to curb carbon dioxide emissions after it passed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and power companies worked the system to make billions in profits.  Electricity customers paid higher bills, thinking they were contributing to a cooler planet.  But their money just went into the pockets of the electric companies, which didn't end up actually cutting down on their carbon dioxide emissions.

These free-market based "cap and trade" systems -- which swap pollution credits like stock -- can work.  For example, the U.S. government successfully reduced acid rain during the 1990's by instituting a sulfur dioxide pollution credit trading system. But they are so complex, sophisticated players can make big money out of the fine print.

So it matters what the fine print says.

During a press conference, Lieberman and colleagues announced that the "America's Climate Security Act" would cut total U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by as much as 19% below the 2005 level in 2020 and by as much as 63% below the 2005 level in 2050.

"With all the irrefutable evidence we now have corroborating that climate change is real, dangerous, and proceeding faster than many scientists predicted, this is the year for Congress to move this critical legislation," said Lieberman.

Joining Lieberman and Warner in co-sponsoring the act are Maryland's Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D), Senators Norm Coleman (R-MN), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Elizabeth Dole (R-NC), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

Some environmental groups, like the Natural Resources Defense Council, and corporations -- like the Exelon power company -- have endorsed the bill.

But Brad Heavner, director of Environment Maryland, is among those concerned that the bill doesn't go far enough and could allow companies to make a big profit without doing much to cut their pollution. "The bill allows unlimited offsets.  Companies can forego all reductions
and buy their way out," Heavner said in an email. "Offsets can be an important part of a cap and
trade system, but they should be a small part."

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network today praised Lieberman and John Warner, but faulted the bill as "falling short of what is demanded by the science and the public to meet the challenge of global warming." 

The activist group said: "current scientific projections show that the United States must reduce its global warming pollution by at least 15% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. The pollution caps in the bill aim to reduce total U.S. global warming emissions by about 11% by 2020 and by just over 50% by 2050."

On Oct. 30, Friends of the Earth went even further, denouncing the Lieberman/Warner bill as "obscene" in its corporate giveaways.  This organization asserted: "Corporate polluters will hit the jackpot if global warming legislation proposed by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.) becomes law.

'The Lieberman-Warner bill will reward corporate polluters by handing them pollution permits worth almost half a trillion dollars,' said Friends of the Earth's Erich Pica, one of the authors of the analysis.  'And that's just one part of this bill.  The bill also includes hundreds of billions of dollars of other mind-boggling giveaways.   The levels of pollution-rewarding giveaways in this bill are truly obscene.'

In particular, Friends of the Earth's analysis found that the bill:

1) Provides the coal industry and other fossil fuel industries pollution permits worth $436 billion over the life of the legislation; 58 percent of this amount goes to coal;

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2) Returns revenue raised through auctions directly to polluters—for example, an additional $324 billion would subsidize the coal industry's efforts to develop carbon capture and storage mechanisms;

3) Directs another $522 billion of auction revenue to low or zero-emissions technologies, which could result in handouts to the nuclear power, big hydro and coal industries, which are not clean (these funds could also be directed toward important clean technologies, such as wind and solar—the legislation is not specific)

Here is the analysis by Friends of the Earth.

Here is the press release from Sen. Joe Lieberman's office.

Here is the home page of Environment Maryland.

Here is the home page of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

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