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Over the course of its history, the U.S. has tackled many environmental issues, from land and biodiversity conservation to air pollution, water pollution and land contamination. Now, we face what is likely our most significant environmental challenge: global climate change. The effects of this problem could be devastating, especially for those who cannot afford to adapt to a changed climate. Growing scientific evidence is showing that our emissions are causing change to the climate. And we are headed down a dangerous path toward irreversible change of the Earth’s climate.

To address this issue, it is important to get past the political battles and focus on what needs to be done: We must stabilize our climate. This will take a comprehensive approach with participation of all large emitting nations and all sectors of our economy. The most efficient and effective way to address this challenge domestically is through an economy-wide cap-and-trade program.

For those who are not familiar with what cap-and-trade means, let me describe the key features of such a program. Under a cap-and-trade climate program, we would set a maximum limit on greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions allowances would be created to represent each ton of emissions allowed under the cap. These allowances would be distributed throughout the economy and/or auctioned off. Each regulated entity would then design its own compliance strategy to meet the overall reduction requirement — through implementation of efficiency measures, sale or purchase of allowances, or by implementing other measures. Individual control requirements are not specified under a cap-and-trade program. Each regulated entity would comply by turning in allowances equal to the amount of eventual greenhouse gas emissions from that entity’s activities.

Emissions trading is an attractive policy for addressing climate change because it harnesses market forces to achieve the most cost-effective emissions reductions possible. In effect, government sets the rules of the game and ensures compliance, then steps back and allows the market participants to innovate and find the most efficient reductions. This approach also builds on the U.S. experience with the very successful Acid Rain Program.

The European Union has led the world by creating the largest cap-and-trade greenhouse gas reduction program. This program, the Emissions Trading Scheme, only covers large stationary sources of emissions, and the EU is having some trouble in integrating the transportation sector into its system. Learning from the experiences of the EU, I have proposed an economy-wide upstream cap-and-trade program. Under such a program, we would regulate fuels at the point they enter the economy (coal mines, refineries, natural gas processing plants, etc.). This would reduce the administrative burden of the cap-and-trade program by limiting the number of regulated entities to a few thousand while capturing virtually all combustion-related greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. economy. I am working toward introducing a bill to create an upstream cap-and-trade program that reflects what I have learned through hearings, an extensive feedback process and sophisticated analyses. It is my hope that my revised bill, which will include more aggressive goals than my earlier draft but still embodies a balanced approach, will be able to be enacted.

The roadblocks to a mandatory cap-and-trade greenhouse gas reduction program have been largely political. But the political momentum in Washington, D.C., is changing. Each successive scientific report calls for greater reductions to avoid catastrophic climate change. Foreign governments are expressing their growing frustration with the fact that the world’s largest historical contributor of anthropogenic greenhouse gases has failed to curb its emissions. Climate change has entered the public consciousness, and our citizens are demanding action. Business leaders foresee the long-term benefits of a market-based climate mitigation program and opportunities in developing and exporting clean coal, renewable energy, and other low- and no-carbon technologies, and they currently are seeing the detriments of the uncertainty of impending climate regulations. As a result, many in the business community have called for an economy-wide cap-and-trade program. And, just a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court made a landmark decision that the Environmental Protection Agency has the current authority to regulate greenhouse gases and there does not appear to be a “reasonable explanation” for “not restricting them.”

I believe Congress and the president must unite on a common goal of monumental importance: stabilizing our climate. It is clear that there is a way to do so that ensures a strong economy, enhances energy security, advances technology and improves our diplomatic standing. I do not believe it is wise to continue to wait to address this issue. Emissions in the United States and developing world continue to rise each year, and construction of new conventional coal plants in the U.S. and China will lock us into higher emissions trajectories for decades. Every year that we postpone action commits the world to additional greenhouse gas emissions on the scale of billions of metric tons. As we develop and commercialize new energy technologies and learn more about the scope of our climate challenges, we will naturally adjust any policies we adopt. The key is to get started. There is no time to delay.

This Earth Day, we should focus on what is likely the greatest environmental challenge we have ever faced. Through cooperation and constructive dialogue, a renewed focus on environmental stewardship, and political fortitude, we can enact economy-wide cap-and-trade legislation to prevent irreparable damage to our planet without harming our economy.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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