US Slips in Cutting Back On `Greenhouse Gases'

PRESIDENT Clinton has called global warming ``a growing, long-term threat with profound consequences.'' His actions, so far, indicate a commitment to going beyond goals set in the international climate-change treaty produced during the ``Earth Summit'' two years ago.

But there are indications those goals - reducing carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2000 is the chief one - are slipping away. And for environmentalists, this raises questions about whether the United States will be a leader on the issue as the bulk of ``greenhouse gases'' begin to come from developing nations.

These issues will be addressed by administration officials, business leaders, and environmental groups April 21. While Mr. Clinton is not expected to be at the gathering, Vice President Al Gore Jr. will preside.

According to Energy Department figures, carbon emissions from fossil fuels rose to 1.4 billion metric tons last year, an increase of 32 million metric tons from 1992. Among reasons for the rise - the first significant one since 1990 - were an increase in economic activity, a drop in world oil prices, and a harsh winter.

This means US emissions now are higher than what the administration had projected for 1995 in its ``Climate Change Action Plan'' of last October. The US Climate Action Network asserts that, if it continues this way, the US will overshoot its greenhouse-gas emission goal for 2000 by 70 million metric tons of carbon.

In addition to lower oil prices and economic growth, says US Public Interest Research Group scientist Anna Aurilio, ``unrealistic assumptions about vehicle fuel economy'' mean the goal of reducing carbon emissions is farther away. ``If the administration is serious about fighting global warming, it must get serious about car and light truck fuel economy.''

Meanwhile, the Energy Department reported that the third world is now the largest producer of carbon dioxide. The 24 major industrialized nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) produce 48 percent of carbon emissions, down from 57 percent in 1970. While such emissions grew 28 percent in developed countries, they grew nearly three times as fast (82 percent) in developing countries. This boosted world carbon emissions from 4 billion to 6 billion metric tons.

The Clinton ``action plan'' on climate change includes measures to stimulate private investment in energy-saving technologies and government-business ``partnership programs'' to promote energy efficiency. It is largely voluntary, which makes environmentalists uneasy. The administration's 1995 budget request also includes a 33 percent hike for renewable energy sources and conservation.

The 65 nations that have ratified the ``Framework Convention on Climate Change'' must submit action plans in September. They'll meet in Berlin next spring to discuss the need for strengthening the treaty, which went into force March 21.

There are now moves in this direction. Canada, Denmark, Germany, and Holland are committed to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions at least 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2005. US officials have also talked of strengthening measures.

``Are we approaching the threat of climate change with the long-term perspective it demands?'' asked a State Department official at a meeting in February. ``No, we are not.''

Many environment and energy activists are concerned the US may be slipping from the leadership role on climate change the Clinton-Gore team seemed eager to assume. ``Unless additional measures are included in the plan submitted next September, it will be difficult for the US to credibly claim it is on track to meeting its treaty commitments,'' warns Alden Meyer, energy-programs director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

``This will reduce the pressure on other OECD countries to propose measures sufficient to meet the year 2000 target, and will, in turn, make it more difficult to win developing-country acceptance of the stronger post-2000 commitments needed to realize the ultimate objective of the treaty.''

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