U.S. President George W. Bush yesterday unveiled his domestic alternative to the Kyoto greenhouse gas-reduction agreement he rejected in 2001. But critics have dismissed Bush's plan, saying it is designed to appease corporations unwilling to cut their emissions of the gases blamed for global warming.
Prague, 15 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Early in his presidency, U.S. President George W. Bush dismayed environmentalists and his European allies by abandoning the Kyoto Protocol as unworkable and harmful to the U.S. economy.
The 1997 treaty calls for industrialized nations to gradually cut emissions of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels.
But in his proposal yesterday, Bush said the best way for the U.S. to do its part in tackling global warming is to use a market-based approach.
The so-called "clean skies" legislation he is proposing would introduce voluntary, not mandatory, measures to slow down the growth in greenhouse-gas emissions. The plan would offer some $4.6 billion in tax credits over the next five years to encourage companies and households to become cleaner. It would also allow firms to "trade" their pollution.
"The 'clean skies' legislation will reach our ambitious air-quality goals through a market-based cap and trade approach that rewards innovation, reduces costs, and guarantees results," Bush said. "Instead of the government telling utilities where and how to cut pollution, we will tell them when and how much to cut it. We will give them a firm deadline and let them find the most innovative way to meet [it]. We will do this by requiring each facility to have a permit for each ton of pollution it emits. I am making the permits tradable. This system makes it financially worthwhile for companies to pollute less, giving them an incentive to make early and cost-effective reductions."
Bush's plan drew immediate criticism from environmental groups, who see it as pandering to the interests of large corporations.
The Friends of the Earth group said Bush is acting out of a desire to "avoid upsetting the powerful U.S. fossil-fuel lobby." Greenpeace International said the plan looks "like it came direct from the boardroom of oil giant ExxonMobil."
There was also scant praise from Europe, where environmentalists hold some government positions and where many view free-market policies as the root cause of many environmental problems -- not their solution.
Germany's environment minister, Juergen Trittin, led the offense today, saying it was disappointing that the plan did not set targets for absolute cuts. He said Bush's proposal is unlikely to lower U.S. emissions significantly, "if at all."
Trittin's French counterpart, Yves Cochet, also criticized the plan, saying the EU should urge Bush to ratify the Kyoto Protocol "without delay."
The European Union was tepid in its response. Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstroem said the plan is no alternative to Kyoto and that it will allow a "significant increase" in U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions.
Wallstroem's spokeswoman, Pia Ahrenkilde-Hansen, said the European Commission welcomes the fact that the U.S. has finally decided to take action on a domestic level to fight climate change. But she added: "It's difficult for us to see, on the basis of the information we have now, how this can effectively result in the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions which we need to solve this problem. We still believe [in] -- and the EU indeed still remains committed to -- the Kyoto Protocol, because for us that continues to constitute the best framework for taking action."
Ahrenkilde-Hansen said the EU still hopes the U.S. will return to the Kyoto treaty.
Chris Hewett is senior research fellow on the environment at Britain's Institute for Public Policy Research. He said parts of the plan do mark a small step forward, such as increased spending on research and the development of renewable energy sources.
But he said that overall, the proposal is a disappointment: "Certainly if there are incentives to reduce emissions, that's got to be good. But what you ultimately have to judge [Bush's] plan on is the effect that will have on overall [carbon dioxide] emissions to the atmosphere from the United States. Assuming that their economy grows, which we would hope it would, then their [carbon dioxide] emissions will also increase according to his plan, which is not good enough to prevent climate change happening."
Hewett said helping the environment need not be harmful to a country's economy: "You can certainly have economic growth while reducing [carbon dioxide] emissions. Various countries around Europe, including Britain, Denmark, and Germany, are proving that already. Science is clear -- we have to cut our [carbon dioxide] emissions. That is not a negotiable issue. We just have to find a different way to grow our economies. The U.S. needs to face up to that reality."
Hewett said the provision for companies to trade their emissions is fine in principle -- Kyoto also allows for such a system. But he added that it should result in an overall reduction in emissions, which Bush's plan does not envisage.