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Air apparent to the Kyoto Protocol

While national schedules could play a crucial role in re-engaging developing countries in the climate negotiations, they raise many difficulties. One of the most immediate is their effect on carbon trading — the buying and selling of emission allowances meant to put a (high) price on greenhouse gases. The Kyoto Protocol, with its accounting of total national emissions, provides a clear mechanism for carbon trading. There's no obvious way for countries on national schedules to participate, so the overall market is likely to shrink. This is bad because it would lower the price of polluting, just the opposite of what is needed for clean-technology innovation.

There is, however, a much more serious problem with national schedules. If the model were to apply to the United States, it would represent a major step backward in controlling greenhouse gases. The U.S. remains the biggest per capita carbon emitter in the world and the only developed nation to have sidestepped Kyoto (Congress never ratified the treaty). It has made no commitment to a national emissions cap. Nor has it had the political will to pass legislation aimed at setting up a national carbon trading system. If the U.S. is allowed to adopt a national schedule instead of finally agreeing to a national cap, it would almost certainly lead to the failure of Australia and Canada to abide by their agreements to cap emissions. And that in turn would leave the Europeans all but isolated in their adherence to national emissions caps, and the developed world without an overall greenhouse gas target.

Most of the major energy generators and many of the largest polluters in the U.S. — such as Alcoa and Duke Energy — now favor a cap-and-trade bill. The opposition is coming primarily from chambers of commerce, principally in the Midwest, whose members fear rising energy prices.

If the U.S. is to lead at Copenhagen, it desperately needs to pass cap-and-trade. The reinvigorated global negotiations have only increased the pressure — it's time for the U.S. to bring something concrete to the table in December.

Flannery is chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council and the author of “Now or Never: Why We Must Act Now to End Climate Change and Create a Sustainable Future.”

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