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.

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

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.

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."

Technology's role

Business interests found much to like in the president's call for developing and deploying new technologies that, among other things, would keep the country's enormous coal reserve in the energy mix, through capturing and storing the carbon dioxide these power plants emit.

President Bush has laid out a constructive and balanced set of principles, says John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers. "Manufacturers seek climate-change solutions that offer significant environmental benefits without undue risk to jobs and the economy. Technology should play a leading role in curbing greenhouse-gas emissions."

The speech came on the eve of the third in a series of Major Economies meetings called by the White House to help develop a new climate treaty to pick up after 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol's first targets expire.

Mr. Bush noted that the European Union and Canada were also setting interim emissions objectives as they weigh post-Kyoto steps. But they aim for absolute cuts in emissions, rather than merely stabilizing them. Last year, the EU called on industrial countries to reduce emissions by 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. And Canada's leaders have set a goal of reducing emissions by 20 percent below 2006 levels by 2020.

Critics note this would not even meet the country's current Kyoto Protocol commitment, but it does recognize that stabilizing emissions isn't enough.

All these goals are based on last year's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. According to the IPCC, holding the increase in global average temperatures to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 would likely help stave off the more-onerous effects of global warming. To do that, however, the IPCC estimated that global greenhouse-gas emissions would have to peak by 2015. And by 2020, industrial countries would have to cut emissions by up to 40 percent below 1990 levels, and by as much as 95 percent by 2050.

The Bush plan, by contrast, calls for US emissions to stabilize by 2025 and does so without specifying the leveling-off point. Given carbon dioxide's long lifetime in the atmosphere, stabilizing emissions means it would still be building in the atmosphere at a time when many scientists say emissions should be falling. The ultimate goal – stabilizing greenhouse-gas levels in the atmosphere, and hence temperatures – means that emissions must fall to virtually zero.

Pressure to lead

The lack of meaningful cuts in Bush's proposal is a nonstarter for developing countries, who must begin to deal with their own emissions in a new global climate agreement.

"In order to get a real agreement, first the US must agree to hard targets," says one diplomat familiar with the thinking of many developing nations. Without US participation in a meaningful set of reductions, he says, the economics of carbon trading won't be attractive enough to allow some of the mechanisms developing countries are proposing to work.

"If the US does not have the political will to accept targets, as the largest economy in the world, how could any politician in a developing country keep his or her job by taking on heavier burdens than even the US will accept?" asks the diplomat.

One area where analysts converge is on Congress and the White House taking the lead on climate policy, rather than leaving it to federal regulatory agencies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency, which the US Supreme Court recently ruled has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

As it wraps up its final months in office, the White House has offered up "a well-thought-out set of principles" that deserve serious consideration as the US tries to craft a sustainable climate policy, Mr. Book says.

Staff writers Ron Scherer and Mark Clayton contributed to this report.

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