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A Guide To The Presidential Candidates' Climate Change Policy Plans
Written by Rebecca Gerome

The debate is over. Climate change is a reality. There is now more carbon pollution in the atmosphere than at any point in 650,000 years. Without a serious effort to reduce carbon emissions within the next decade, the consequences could be staggering. If we want to address global warming we have to reduce emissions 60 to 90%. This requires a major change in the technologies we use to provide energy. It is time to bring in a new era of energy production and use that relies on clean, safe, alternative energy. Which candidate has the best approach to bring about this energy shift?

Global warming has finally become a top concern in US politics. In a recent survey, 72% of the democrats and 36% of the republicans questioned listed the environment as "a very important issue". Although it still ranks below Iraq, healthcare and the economy, what used to concern only left-wing tree huggers is starting to gain significant importance among moderates and republicans. The National Association of Evangelicals and a few notable Catholic bishops have radically shifted their position and now consider climate change to be not simply a scientific issue, but a moral and ideological one. As for the republican candidates, they are divided between Giuliani and Romney, who have remained mostly silent about the environment, and McCain and Huckabee, who strongly support a carbon cap-and-trade policy.

The main Democratic candidates each propose a comprehensive energy plan and see environmental action as an opportunity for job creation in new technologies. The most eco-friendly candidate of all is Bill Richardson, the Governor of New Mexico, who calls himself the "energy president". He holds by far the strongest position in terms of specific proposals to reduce emissions and is backed up by the fact he already carried out a lot of his proposals in New Mexico. He is the only candidate to advocate a carbon tax - a highly unpopular proposal opposed by 71% - and propose a target of 90% reduction for gas emissions.

A Guide to The Solutions Proposed

Cap-and-Trade. Emissions Trading is a way for the government to control pollution on a national level. The government sets a cap to the amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted. Companies hold a certain number of credits that represent their right to emit a certain amount of gases. If they need to emit more, they can buy credits from companies who pollute less, and thus trade in carbon credits. The company who pollutes more is therefore fined for polluting, while the one who pollutes less is rewarded for having reduced emissions. This method was already used successfully to reduce acid rain in the US. In the 1990s, the U.S. acid rain cap and trade program achieved 100% compliance in reducing sulfur dioxide emissions. In fact, power plants participating in the program reduced SO2 emissions 22% - 7.3 million tons - below mandated levels.

To address the growing threat of global warming, scientists say that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of two percent each year - achieving 80 percent reductions by 2050. Ten of the biggest corporations, including BP, Duke Energy and GE, have endorsed establishing a mandatory, economy-wide national cap on carbon emissions, which they believe will provide industry the long-term certainty that they need to develop new technologies.

Energy Efficiency. "Green building" design and construction can dramatically reduce the enormous amounts of energy that buildings consume in heating, cooling, lighting and water use.

Fuel Efficiency. Studies have shown that increasing fuel efficiency in private cars to 40 mpg would save three million barrels per day, helping to reduce the US' dependence on oil.

New Coal Plants and Liquid Coal. Reducing use of coal through energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies is a necessary step to address climate change. Yet the reality is that hundreds of new coal-fired power plants will probably be constructed in coming years. The compromise is to convert coal into a clean-burning gas and capture and dispose of the carbon dioxide deep underground, dramatically reducing the air pollution. However, even after employing these proposed capture technologies, a residual amount of carbon dioxide – between 60 and 150g CO2/kWh - will continue to be emitted. Employing CO2 capture will also increase the price of electricity from fossil fuels. Although the costs of storage depend on a lot of factors, including the technology used for separation, transport and the kind of storage installation, experts from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculate the additional costs at between 3.5 and 5.0 cents/kWh of power. Many environmental groups do not support carbon sequestration because it still has a negative environmental impact, it is expensive and can potentially be dangerous. Obama and Clinton, under pressure from coal workers, continue to support coal plants, providing that programs be put into place to reduce CO2 emissions through carbon capture and sequestration under ground.

Nuclear power. Though some consider it as an alternative to greenhouse gases, most environmental groups oppose it for several key reasons. There is no safe way to take care of nuclear waste, which will remain dangerous for 240,000 years. It is also dangerous. Since 1986, the year of the Chernobyl accident, there have been 200 near nuclear accidents at 50 reactors in the U.S. It also provides the material and know- how for nuclear weapons. Finally, nuclear power is expensive. The first 75 reactors in the U.S. cost $100 billion.

Renewable Energy. This is by far the cleanest and safest solution. More than 20 states have passed renewable electricity standards requiring that a certain percentage of their electricity is generated from renewables. Several have set a standard of 20% by 2020.

The Candidates

Hillary Clinton has a comprehensive energy plan that includes reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 through cap-and-trade, increasing fuel efficiency to 55 mpg by 2030, and increasing renewable energy use to 25% by 2025. However, she supports liquid coal if it reduces its emissions by 20%. She also calls herself "agnostic" on the subject of nuclear power. However, she fully opposes drilling in Alaska's Artic National Wildlife Refuge.

John Edwards was the first candidate to pick up an environmental endorsement because he is the most outspoken against nuclear energy. He was also the first to say he would run a carbon neutral campaign by buying offsets* for his campaign buses and planes. He supports cap-and-trade beginning in 2010 and calls for an 80% reduction in carbon output by 2050, a 15% cut in energy use by 2018 and 40 mpg vehicles by 2016. He voted against drilling in Alaska and supports the ban on new coal plants unless they are compatible with carbon capture and storage capacity.

Barack Obama plans to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 through cap-and-trade and emphasizes innovation as a means to improve energy efficiency. He has called for a 50% energy reduction by 2030. He also plans on improving fuel efficiency to 50 mpg in 18 years by offering tax credits to automakers. He supports a 25% renewable energy standard by 2025, yet he is also willing to explore the use of nuclear power and supports investing in liquid coal if it reduces carbon pollution by 10%. He is opposed to ANWR drilling.

Rudy Giuliani has not articulated clear positions to address global warming. He rejects cap-and-trade, hasn't called for specific changes in fuel efficiency, supports increased use of nuclear energy and drilling in the Gulf of Mexico as well as ANWR. He has also received heavy campaign contributions from oil and gas industries.

John McCain is the only republican to even mention the words "global warming" and "climate change" on his website. He is the co-sponsor of the Senate cap-and-trade bill and is generally seen as a bipartisan leader on the issue. He advocates a 65% reduction in carbon 2050, generally supports increased energy and fuel efficiency but hasn't specified any standard. He also supports expanded use of nuclear energy. He voted against drilling in Alaska despite party pressure.

Mitt Romney is willing to consider a cap on emissions only if it is considered globally and generally supports energy efficiency but has not articulated any specific target. He supports liquid coal, more use of nuclear power and drilling in Alaska.

Bill Richardson calls himself the "energy president". He holds the strongest position in terms of specific proposals to reduce emissions and is backed up by the fact he already carried out a lot of his proposals in New Mexico. He is the only candidate to advocate a carbon tax - a highly unpopular proposal opposed by 71% - and a target of 90% reduction for gas emissions. He also advocates a 50 mpg fuel efficiency standard, 30% renewable energy standard by 2020, and opposes liquid coal.

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