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Bush's climate goals vague – but a start

His call for US emissions to stabilize by 2025 marks a policy change, but is still behind other nations.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 18, 2008

President George W. Bush talked about his climate change strategy on Wednesday in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington.

Jim Young/Reuters

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The Bush administration's latest statement of principles for dealing with global warming, announced this week, represents a nod to the need to curb greenhouse-gas emissions economy-wide.

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But the goal called for – stabilizing the economy's emissions by 2025 – falls far short of what's needed to approach the objectives the rest of the world aims for as countries strive to set up a new climate agreement to supplant the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, some analysts say.

Still, the speech President Bush delivered in the Rose Garden Wednesday afternoon has resonated even with people who find many of its details wanting.

"Given the administration's track record and its reputation on global climate-change policy to date, this is a step in the right direction," says Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard University.

The speech's significance, he adds, lies less with its implications for global warming than with its effect on "a substantial number of Republicans in the House and Senate who are on the fence," as Congress considers global warming legislation. The call for emissions goals could – especially if it were combined with acquiescence on some form of emissions-trading – help build GOP support for some of the measures Congress is considering, he says.

For others, the speech carried a broader significance.

"You'll have plenty of critics saying it's too late, it doesn't go far enough, or it undercuts existing goals," says Kevin Book, a senior analyst on energy and technology issues at the FBR Group, an investment firm in Arlington, Va. But the speech carried "a strong acknowledgment of a need for action and a very useful counterpoint."

A policy change

Until now, the president's climate policy has focused on reducing the US economy's carbon intensity – the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the air for a given level of economic growth. Mr. Bush noted that in 2002, he set a voluntary goal of reducing US carbon intensity 18 percent by 2012. Till date, it's fallen 17 percent. And the economy has continued to grow.

But for many analysts, this doesn't constitute much of a policy. The economy's carbon intensity has been falling by double-digits since the 1980s, largely due to economic developments unrelated to climate policy. So, it's difficult to say what proportion of the improvement in the past six years is due to the White House's policy and what portion would have occurred naturally.

Moreover, the economy has continued to pour carbon dioxide into the air from burning fossil fuels, adding to the atmosphere's storehouse of the greenhouse gas.

Thus, the administration's new focus on absolute emissions represents a significant change, analysts say.

The speech evoked an "it could have been worse" response from some.

"Thanks to conservative opposition, the president has stepped back from the most damaging proposals being considered," according to a statement by Myron Ebell, who oversees energy and global-warming policy for the Competitiveness Enterprise Institute in Washington. Still, he continues, "President Bush has moved the debate toward energy-rationing policies that will raise electricity and gasoline prices for consumers."

Others see this as a defensive move on the president's part. A growing number of evangelicals are embracing mandatory emissions controls. And presidential candidates of both major parties also back such moves, which are taking shape at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. "Events are racing past [the White House]," says Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) of Oregon. "This is an attempt to kick the can down the road not just for the next president, but for the next three or four presidents."

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