Is it a new course for the Bush administration on climate change, or simply old wine in new bottles?
That's the question many are trying to answer following the May 31 announcement that the White House aims to spearhead an international effort to build a framework for action on global warming. The framework would shape efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions after 2012, when the first five-year commitment under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol ends.
Under the plan, the United States would gather leaders of 15 nations that comprise the leading emitters of heat-trapping gases and the largest consumers of energy. Their objective: Develop a long-term reduction goal that, according to administration officials, countries would aspire to, rather than be required to meet. Each country would then develop its own sets of programs to achieve the goal.
President Bush unveiled the plan on the eve of this year's G-8 summit, set to start June 6 in Heiligendamm, Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will chair the meeting, has put a high priority on committing G-8 members to reaching specific emissions goals. Drafts of the meeting's final communiqué already in circulation include statements on the need to reduce emissions significantly by 2050.
Her effort is driven in no small part by three recent reports on global warming that show its effects and offer strategies for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels such as coal or oil. The reports, which aim to inform policymakers as they craft ways to reduce human influence on climate, were issued earlier this year by the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
During the run-up to the G-8 meeting, the Bush administration has come under intense criticism from environmental groups and some European officials. The White House rejected the way large sections of the draft's climate provisions were worded. It argued that the offending elements clearly run counter to the president's policy on dealing with global warming.
For example, Washington's proposed changes to the draft G-8 document virtually wipe out any reference to various emissions-reduction goals by 2050 or an objective of trying to hold global average temperature increases to about 2 degrees Celsius. These are based on IPCC projections of possible future emissions trends and the kinds of emission controls that could avoid what past UN agreements have referred to as "dangerous human-made influence on climate."
In retrospect, it appears that the White House also may have been trying to adjust the draft communiqué text in ways that conformed it more closely to provisions of the plan Washington was getting set to announce. The White House has long rejected mandatory emissions-reduction targets and timetables. Excising those references in the communiqué would leave the door open to selecting a goal through the administration's proposed set of meetings.
"The declaration by President Bush basically restates the US classic line on climate change – no mandatory reductions, no carbon trading, and vaguely expressed objectives," EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas told Reuters through a spokeswoman.
Some environmental groups saw the Bush plan as merely trying to defuse a barrage of criticism aimed its way.
"This is a transparent effort to divert attention from the President's refusal to accept any emissions reductions proposals at next week's G-8 summit," says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust in Washington. "The White House is just trying to hide the fact that the president is completely isolated among the G-8 leaders by calling vaguely for some agreement next year, right before he leaves office."
But the Bush administration argued that the approach could help prod a ponderous UN process move forward.
While setting an "aspirational" goal might seem out of touch with calls for binding commitments, environmental treaties often set a broad goal, which is turned into action through each country's process of ratifying and enacting legislation, said James Connaughton, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, at a press briefing May 31. Citing fisheries agreements as an example, he noted that "you agree on goals in the international process, [and] you implement them through national strategies that include binding measures."
Such an approach could be attractive to rapidly growing countries such as India and China, which say binding commitments could place an unfair drag on their economic growth. Both the Kyoto Protocol and its parent document, the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, acknowledge that developed countries have a responsibility to move first on global warming. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the cumulative emissions these countries have pumped into the atmosphere are responsible for rising global average temperatures, scientists say.
But all parties agree that for emissions controls to be truly effective, countries such as China, India, and Brazil have to be brought into the process. Indeed, on June 4, Beijing is slated to release its own climate-change strategy in advance of attending the G-8 meeting as an observer.
"The acid test of Heiligendamm will be getting the unconstrained powers to commit" beyond 2012, says John Kirton, director of the G-8 Research Group at the University of Toronto. "They don't have to define the nature of the post-Kyoto regime, but it is fundamentally important that they agree to do something."
The flexibility of the US proposal, he suggests, "is more to bring the unconstrained on board."
While some have complained that the US plan is vague, it has one very specific target – the 18-month time frame for coming up with more-specific provisions, Mr. Kirton says. This is key because Bush will still be president then, he says. In his view, Bush is not, as some observers see it, stalling until he is out of office.
The Bush administration is not alone in its thinking. In 2005, the nonpartisan Pew Center on Global Climate Change published recommendations for making progress toward a post-Kyoto 2012 agreement. The report was based on discussions the group had with government and business representatives from 15 countries, including the leading emitters.
Among the options the group outlined: setting up an informal dialogue in order to develop a consensus on what to do beyond 2012 and allowing countries to take different tacks to meeting binding commitments. Both are reflected in the Bush plan.
But the plan also differs in at least two key aspects, notes Elliot Diringer, Pew's director of international strategies.
Unlike the Bush strategy, he says, diverse approaches must be part of "a system of commitments" through an overarching international agreement. "You allow for different types of commitments but they need to be commitments," he says.
The Bush plan, in its current form, remains only a voluntary one where it matters most, he continues. "We've tried the voluntary approach here at home and internationally, and it hasn't worked," he says.
And while the president's proposal focuses on medium- and long-term goals, near-term goals are vital, too, Mr. Diringer says. "For this administration, this new plan is a step forward. But it falls well short of what's needed."
Monitor contributor Mariah Blake in Germany contributed to this report.