Infrastructure & Environment

Mayors Group Scraps Cap-and-Trade Support

The U.S. Conference of Mayors has launched a new campaign to save energy and cut down on air pollution. But, due to GOP opposition, they're no longer urging Congress to pass cap and trade.
by | July 8, 2014
AP/Charlie Riedel

Nearly 10 years ago, mayors from around the country signed a voluntary agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions in cities. The initiative came in response to a decision by then-President George W. Bush not to join the Kyoto Protocol, an international accord that sought to lower air pollution by 2012. The United States would have needed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 7 percent below what the country produced in 1990. In lieu of federal action, mayors adopted their version of the Kyoto Protocol. Over time, the mayoral pledge grew in popularity from an initial list 140 co-signers to more than 1,060 by 2014.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors, a bipartisan association which oversaw the effort, has since released reports showing that elected officials took the commitment to heart. Cities expanded sidewalks and bike lanes, installed solar energy cells on public rooftops and purchased fleets of hybrid vehicles. Some cities now say that they’ve slashed their way back down to the level of greenhouse gas emissions they emitted in 1990.

In anticipation of the climate agreement’s 10-year anniversary, members of the Conference of Mayors decided to renew their climate vows, but without one major provision from the original agreement: Mayors who sign the new document won’t be lobbying Congress for a national “cap-and-trade” system.

Leadership within the group opted to cut cap and trade from the new agreement, rather than risk alienating mayors who would otherwise support the mayors’ climate agenda. “Cap and trade is an issue that could divide the group,” said Carmel, Indiana, Mayor Jim Brainard, a co-chair of the Conference’s climate task force and a Republican. “Rather than split mayors up over partisan disagreements, we wanted to focus on actually doing something,” said Bridgeport, Conn., Mayor Bill Finch, the other climate co-chair and a Democrat.

The original mayors agreement included a pledge urging Congress to pass legislation that would create “a flexible, market-based system of tradable allowances among emitting industries.” The proposal is more commonly described as “cap and trade,” a regulated market that would limit the amount of carbon companies could emit. Companies that produce less than the limit would receive a permit -- sometimes described as a credit -- which could then be sold to other companies that exceed the limit.

The proposal last received serious consideration by Congress in 2009, when California Rep. Henry Waxman and Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey introduced the American Clean Energy and Security Act, calling for a national cap-and-trade system. Ultimately, the bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives, but died in the Senate after Republicans swept the 2010 midterm elections.

Since the original 2005 mayors climate agreement, cap and trade has become a less palatable solution to global warming for the Republican party. Paradoxically, the idea originated with an attorney in the Reagan administration, who argued for a market-based approach to reduce sulfur dioxide from power plants, a major contributor to acid rain. The proposal eventually became national law in 1990 under another Republican president, George H.W. Bush, and proved to be both less expensive to businesses than once feared and still effective in cutting acid rain pollution. “It’s one of the great successes of the environmental movement,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Because cap and trade appealed to both left-wing environmentalists and free-market conservatives, Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain tried to use the same approach when he helped introduce legislation in 2003, 2005 and 2007 to create a marketplace for another type of pollutant, carbon dioxide. As a presidential nominee in 2008, he even campaigned on a cap-and-trade system.

After losing the election, McCain backed off cap and trade and joined Republican senators -- along with coal state and farm state Democrats -- in opposing the 2009 Waxman-Markey bill. And his shift seems to have reflected the will of his supporters. By December 2009, a majority of Republican adults opposed cap and trade, especially if it meant an increase in househould energy costs, according to a survey by Leiserowitz and Edward Maibach, a fellow climate communications researcher at George Mason University.

The cap-and-trade provision in the original mayors climate agreement became an artifact of a once-bipartisan proposal that is now politically toxic for elected officials on the right, even those who are serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And some are. Through climate protection awards and surveys of its members, the Conference of Mayors has highlighted efforts by city leaders of both parties to increase recycling rates, save electricity with LED lights, and switch city vehicles to alternative fuel sources. But that bipartisan spirit does not extend to cap and trade.

Former Mesa, Ariz., Mayor Scott Smith, a Republican, saw firsthand what happens to a Republican mayor who signed the original climate agreement despite reservations about cap and trade. Smith, now a gubernatorial candidate, is a proponent of promoting energy efficiency and conservation, but doesn’t support cap and trade. Nonetheless, he became the subject of a misleading political attack ad in April that implied he endorsed cap and trade because he was president of the Conference of Mayors between June 2013 and April 2014. The new climate agreement will avoid that type of political conflict for Republican mayors.

Both Brainard and Finch, who co-chair the climate task force at the Conference of Mayors, argued that scrapping the cap-and-trade provision also reflected the current reality in Washington that federal legislation is largely out of mayors’ sphere of influence anyway. “We’re not as focused on what Congress is going to do,” Brainard said. “We’re focused on cities.”

To the extent that the mayors climate plan does advocate for federal action, it largely focuses on existing programs, such as federal grants or loans that support renewable energy at the local level. Rather than urge Congress to pass laws that mayors know aren’t likely to pass, the group focused on actions under mayors' direct control, such as taking an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions by the city government and the community as a whole.

The agreement also placed new emphasis on “climate resiliency,” the idea that cities need to be prepared for extreme heat, floods, wildfires, storm surges and other weather-related events.  "We’re focused on what mayors can do right now," Brainard said. "The cap-and-trade debate will take place a different level than at cities."

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