The U.S. Climate Action Partnership — a coalition of businesses and enviros once thought to be important — have released their wimpy Blueprint for Legislative Action.

I can sort of understand why, say, Duke Energy, signed on to this, but NRDC, EDF, and WRI have a lot of explaining to do. As we will see, this proposal would be wholly inadequate as a final piece of legislation. As a starting point it is unilateral disarmament to the conservative politicians and big fossil fuel companies who will be working hard to gut any bill. Kudos to the National Wildlife Federation for withdrawing from USCAP rather than signing on.

I think it is absurd for any serious environmental group to support permitting new coal plants that don’t capture and store the vast majority of their emissions. Yet as the WashPost reports:

The plan would also require any coal plant permitted after Jan. 1, 2015, to emit no more than half the carbon dioxide emissions now considered normal and require any newly permitted plant today to have the ability to be retrofitted to meet that standard.

These are bogus provisions. Nobody really knows what a capture-ready plant design is — this is the climate equivalent of “the check is in the mail.” Any significant number of such new coal plants will simply make it much harder to meet the 2020 target, at a time when we have more than enough low carbon technologies today to meet any such target affordably.

But it is the 2020 target and the issue of rip-offsets that make this proposal truly untenable. The Blueprint calls for requiring that U.S. greenhouse gases (GHGs) return to “80%‐86% of 2005 levels by 2020.” That is essentially returning to 1990 levels, which the science clearly says is inadequate to stabilizing at 450 ppm, let alone the 350 ppm target that environmental groups should be seriously considering.

Worse, the science makes clear that you need a target below 1990 levels without allowing fossil fuel companies to offset their emissions — i.e. continue releasing CO2 into the atmosphere where it will linger with a mean atmospheric lifetime of 30,000 years.

But the already-lame USCAP proposal shoots itself in the (other) foot with its embrace of a staggering amount of rip-offsets.

Since USCAP is recommending a stringent emission target, we also recommend generous limits on the use of offsets to help moderate compliance costs, especially during the period when low carbon technologies are still achieving the economies of scale and commercial maturity that many currently lack.

Shame on my NRDC, EDF, and WRI friends for signing on to such nonsense. The emission target is most certainly not “stringent” as I have discussed at length here. It doesn’t even match the target recommended in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report — and that report certainly underestimated the speed and scale of climate impacts.

The final clause is both wrong and irrelevant — energy efficiency is a fully mature technology, as is biomass cofiring in coal plants as is cogeneration. Wind is ramping up at an astonishing pace, and solar thermal baseload can deliver large amount of affordable power by 2020. For a full discussion, see “An introduction to the core climate solutions.”

(Note to NRDC and EDF and WRI: Obama has committed, “We will double the production of alternative energy in the next three years.” If the President thinks alternative energy is ready to ramp up rapidly starting now, why don’t you? You are supposed to be pushing the administration to do more than they plan to, not less!)

But the unconscionable amount of rip-offsets USCAP embraces guts the entire effort:

• Congress should set an overall upper level limit on the use of offsets for compliance in any year of 1.5 billion metric tons domestic and 1.5 billion metric tons international offsets.

• Congress should establish a Carbon Market Board (CMB) and give it the authority to set annual limits on the level of domestic and international offsets within the range of 2-3 billion metric tons total

• Congress should specify that the initial annual limit on offsets will be 2 billion metric tons. CMB should have the authority to increase the annual limit to avoid undue economic harm from excessively high allowance prices …

You cannot be serious.

Remember, total U.S. GHGs in 2005 were about 7.2 billion tons.

The USCAP plan would call for a reduction of 1.0 to 1.4 billion tons of U.S. GHGs in 2020, while allowing 2 billion or more tons of offsets, at least half of which don’t even have to be in this country. When would U.S. carbon dioxide emissions see serious reductions under this plan? Who knows? It’s déja vu all over again.

Let me repeat once more, as a major 2008 analysis from Stanford found:

“between a third and two thirds” of emission offsets under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) — set up under the Kyoto treaty to encourage emissions reductions in developing nations — do not represent actual emission cuts.

And this led to the study’s stark conclusion:

any offset market of sufficient scale to provide substantial cost-control for a cap-and-trade program will involve substantial issuance of credits that do not represent real emissions reductions.

The Government Accountability Office recently ripped rip-offsets: “The use of carbon offsets in a cap-and-trade system can undermine the system’s integrity.”

Also, the CDM is filled with fraud. Let’s remember that the West got suckered into giving China some $6 billion to destroy greenhouse gas refrigerants that probably cost Chinese companies $100 million to capture and destroy (for more details, see “Kyoto’s Great Carbon Offset Swindle“). Let’s remember:

U.N. regulators are also concerned that some independent auditors of these projects, who are responsible for vetting their environmental legitimacy, have been letting project developers push through ventures of questionable environmental value …

In a presentation to U.N. officials last fall, the head of Tüv Süd’s carbon business told U.N. officials that the quality of projects the auditors are receiving from carbon brokers is “going down,” according to the U.N. panel’s Mr. Schmidt,
who was at the meeting …

“There is a high incentive” for companies to put together environmentally questionable carbon-credit projects, “because there is a lot of money that can be earned,” he said. “People are getting more inventive, so it’s getting harder to detect the black sheep.”

Let’s remember that instead of using the money to fund the transition to a sustainable economy, the World Bank “has loaned $1.5 billion to fossil-fuel companies to make minor greenhouse-gas reductions,” and “then sells carbon credits for those reductions,” and “takes its 13 percent cut”?

Let’s remember that “The vast majority of schemes that sell carbon credits to offset pollution are delivering 30% less than they promise“?

No serious environmental group — no person or group serious about keeping total global warming as close as possible to 2°C, no one who endorses a target of 450 ppm or lower, should endorse a final climate bill with more than, say, 5 percent very high quality offsets allowed.

The USCAP proposal has other features that are problematic. For instance, “USCAP recommends that a significant portion of allowances should be initially distributed free to capped entities … ” Again, Obama himself has called for a 100 percent auction. As the Friends of the Earth response to USCAP says:

Put simply, the proposal would reward corporate polluters with hundreds of billions of dollars of giveaways, and its near-term pollution reduction targets are far weaker than what scientists have called for. The proposal is further weakened by its massive carbon offset loopholes. Were such a proposal to be enacted into law, it would fail to achieve the emission reductions we need in the U.S. and would undermine our ability to meaningfully and credibly engage in international climate negotiations. This is a dead-end approach that policymakers should reject.

Precisely.

This proposal is a dead end — and an even deader starting point. Shame on NRDC, EDF, and WRI for backing it.

With this proposal, the U.S. Climate Action Partnership has officially made itself obsolete and irrelevant.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.