World leaders gathered in Pittsburgh for the Group of 20 summit agreed Friday afternoon to phase out fossil fuel subsidies over time, approving language that does not outline a specific timetable for the phase-out and makes clear that poorer citizens may still receive help in paying their energy bills.
But the wording of the statement, championed by the Obama administration, signals the world’s most influential nations are taking an initial, tentative step away from the fossil fuels that power their economies.
“We commit to rationalize and phase out over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption,” the statement said. “As we do that, we recognize the importance of providing those in need with essential energy services, including through the use of targeted cash transfers and other appropriate mechanisms. This reform will not apply to our support for clean energy, renewables and technologies that dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
The United States and many other countries around the world provide financial aid — in the form of both direct payments and tax breaks — to help produce oil, natural gas and other fuels that produce carbon dioxide, which has contributed to rapid climate change over the past half century. According to the Environmental Law Institute, the U.S. government provided $72 billion in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry between 2002 and 2008.
China plans to include a pilot emissions trading system in its five-year plan for economic development until 2015, the Environment Ministry said on Sunday, but declined to comment on whether it would cover carbon dioxide.
The government is already experimenting with small-scale schemes to tackle acid-rain causing sulphur dioxide and other pollutants using market mechanisms.
It has been coy about the potential for expanding these, or adding greenhouse gases to the list of pollutants that can be controlled and traded, but is apparently keen to at least continue exploring their potential.
A trial system for trading in permits to pollute was listed as one of four main emissions reductions goals in official comments about a blueprint for growth in China from 2011 to 2015, which bureaucrats are still thrashing out.
China is now the world’s top annual emitter, and President Hu Jintao pledged at the United Nations to take on a “carbon intensity” goal that would oblige it to cut the amount of carbon dioxide produced for each dollar of its economic output.
Many carbon traders hope this could pave the way for a market like the one currently used in Europe, and have been rushing to secure a potentially lucrative foothold in China even though it is unclear how easy it will be to make money there.
When Orthodox Jews met with top White House adviser David Axelrod and a handful of U.S. senators this month as part of an annual lobbying effort, they talked up climate change legislation as a way to improve security for the United States and Israel. “America’s reliance on imported oil from the Arab Middle East has been a grave concern for a very long time,” says Nathan Diament, public policy director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. “The Jewish community is interested in energy independence.”
But the Jewish delegation also based its case for a climate change bill, which cleared the House earlier this year, on another premise: the Bible. “We are getting ready to read Genesis and the creation story in our synagogues in a few weeks,” Diament says. “Our responsibility to tend the garden is part of our understanding of the Torah and of our worship.” Indeed, some Jews have begun referring to their green activism as “creation care,” a term coined by environmentally inclined evangelical Christians.
As environmental interests begin pressing the Senate to pass major climate legislation before next year’s midterm elections, groups and activists from across the spectrum of American religious traditions have emerged as an integral part of the effort. Some denominations and faith-based organizations are planning grass-roots campaigns around the bill for this fall. The White House’s faith-based advisory council has convened a climate change task force. And Pope Benedict XVI’s environmental proclamations, including writing recently that “the environment is God’s gift to everyone,” have earned him the nickname the “green pope.”
At a time when many senators are skittish about adopting the House climate bill’s cap-and-trade provision because of fears it could further slow the economy, religious activists may prove crucial to building support, or at least dampening opposition, among important religious constituencies. Religious conservatives, for instance, generally oppose more government regulation. And many African-Americans, among the most religious demographic groups in the country, worry about cap-and-trade’s impact on manufacturing jobs. Faith-based environmentalists have responded to such doubts with a moral case that climate change will disproportionally affect the world’s poor by causing food shortages, drought, and coastal flooding. “The faith community talks about climate legislation differently than scientists or environmentalists,” says Cassandra Carmichael, director of the Washington office of the National Council of Churches. “We frame it in terms of the people impacted, which can bring in legislators who hadn’t thought in those terms.”
n the House, religious activists helped to narrowly pass a climate bill in June. A group called the American Values Network, founded by the religious outreach director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Burns Strider, bought Christian radio ads promoting the bill in conservative congressional districts. The progressive group Faith in Public Life funded polling that showed most evangelicals and Catholics support efforts to combat climate change. Religious lobbyists, meanwhile, won a provision in the House bill guaranteeing that houses of worship are eligible for federal subsidies for retrofitting energy-inefficient buildings.
The stepped-up environmental efforts of religious groups in Washington have paralleled a grass-roots effort among religious Americans to green their congregations. An ecumenical group called GreenFaith recently launched a program to certify green houses of worship. Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a tool kit to help churches, synagogues, and mosques earn its Energy Star ratings for their facilities. The Obama administration is reportedly considering the idea of a faith-based office at the EPA to expand its work with religious communities.