Bush Announces National Goals on Emissions

President Bush outlined a new initiative to address climate change Wednesday, saying the United States should stabilize its emissions by 2025. While that's far less aggressive than many nations and lawmakers had hoped, it marks a change for an administration long opposed to setting limits on emissions.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

President Bush today set a new goal for the U.S. to address global warming. He wants the country to stabilize emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by the year 2025. The goal is far weaker than Europe's and weaker than proposals currently circulating on Capitol Hill.

As NPR's Richard Harris reports, critics say the Bush proposal would have no measurable effects on global warming.

RICHARD HARRIS: Not long after taking office, President Bush rejected the Kyoto climate treaty which would have required the United States to reduce emissions sharply by the year 2012. Instead, he instituted a policy that allow the country to continue increasing emissions by about 1 percent a year, which should it has been doing on average since 1990.

And now, with just a few months left in office, Mr. Bush appeared in the Rose Garden to update his policy.

P: We've shown that we can solve emissions growth. Today, I'm announcing a new national goal: To stop the growth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.

HARRIS: So emissions can continue to grow until today's newborns are in high school. The president did not propose any specific new measures to achieve the goal, but he said some recent laws will help. For example, Congress passed a law that will increase automobile fuel efficiency by 2020.

And the president also pointed to a major international agreement to control potent industrial chemicals called HFCs, which contribute significantly to global warming.

P: Taken together, these landmark actions will prevent billions of metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere.

HARRIS: Mr. Bush's speech comes in advance of a congressional debate on dramatic new climate legislation. One favored approach is to establish limits for carbon dioxide, just as there are limits for acid rain chemicals, and then let industry buy and sell the right to pollute. The president repeated his opposition to this legislation.

P: The wrong way is to raise taxes, duplicate mandates, or demand sudden and drastic emissions cuts that have no chance of being realized and every chance of hurting our economy.

HARRIS: Of course, that's not the view of congressmen and senators on Capitol Hill from both sides of the aisle who have proposed that legislation. They say if you put a price on carbon, you'll create a strong economic incentive for new climate-friendly technologies.

Edward Markey is a Massachusetts Democrat who heads the House Committee on climate change.

NORRIS: The president's short-term goal is to do nothing. His medium-term goal is to do nothing much. And his long-term goal is to do nothing close to what's needed to save the planet from global warming.

HARRIS: David Sandalow at the Brookings Institution says the Bush speech was aimed at Congress.

BLOCK: The train is moving toward legislation that will control greenhouse gases in the United States. And this announcement appears to be an effort to throw sand in the gears.

HARRIS: Sandalow says Mr. Bush's plan appears to be providing political coverage at those in Congress who oppose the climate bill.

BLOCK: President Bush is putting out an alternative that opponents to the bill can say they're for as opposed to just simply being against a piece of legislation.

HARRIS: Politics aside, it's evident that the president's new goals fall far short of what would be needed to control global warming. Climate scientists assembled by the United Nations last year concluded that Earth will continue to warm up fast until global emissions are, not only stopped, but reduced dramatically by perhaps 50 to 80 percent by the middle of the century.

And that's not just for the United States, but for the rest of the world as well. President Bush tipped his hat to that fact today.

P: Even if we reduce our own emissions to zero tomorrow. We would not make a meaningful dent in solving the problem without concerted action by all major economies.

HARRIS: Europe has already established its mid-term goal, which is much more ambitious than the president's plan. It's striving to slash emissions by more than 20 percent in the next 12 years. But so far, despite the tough talk, emissions there are still on the rise.

Richard Harris, NPR News, Washington.

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What's Old, What's New in Bush's Climate Strategy

President Bush delivers remarks on climate at the White House on Wednesday.

President Bush delivers remarks on climate at the White House on Wednesday. hide caption

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In his first major Rose Garden speech on climate change, President Bush set a goal of halting the growth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.

Bush's approach underscores his long-stated belief that emissions mandates like those in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which the United States did not sign, are economy-killers. No international climate treaty, he has said, will be effective unless major emitters like China and India are held to the same standards as other nations.

The president also emphasized Wednesday that new technologies such as clean-burning coal can help combat the problem of climate change. But that it should not cost consumers or require changes in lifestyle. Here, a look at the president's climate strategy:

What is Bush proposing?

The president laid out two new goals in Wednesday's address. First, he called for stopping the growth of U.S. emissions by 2025. Second, he singled out the electric power industry as the first responder for these efforts. Bush said power plants should flatten emissions growth in 10 to 15 years. Power plants emit the bulk of greenhouse gases in the United States — they produce about 40 percent of human-made sources of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas.

How does Bush's speech change previous White House policy on climate change?

Although the president's remarks were among his most detailed on the issue, they reiterated many of his long-standing beliefs. He again expressed his support for raising automobile mileage minimums and for making more renewable fuels from corn or cellulose. Bush previously had laid out these goals during his State of the Union addresses, and his address Wednesday did not specify how those goals will be reached.

What has Bush done so far?

Greenhouse gas emissions are rising in the United States by an average of about 1 percent a year. (Last year's warm weather led to a 1 percent decrease, however, because Americans needed less energy to heat their homes.) Bush said the government is spending billions of dollars on new technology to reverse the emissions trend, and he called for new nuclear power plants, many of which are already in the regulatory pipeline. But investors and utility companies have been leery of backing new nuclear plants, and the government does not require power plants, the auto industry or the manufacturing sector to adopt new technologies.

How does his approach differ from the Kyoto Protocol?

The Kyoto treaty, which Bush says is flawed, requires that by 2012, industrialized countries must reduce greenhouse gases by 5 percent below their 1990 emissions levels. The European Union has taken it a step further, pledging to reduce emissions by 20 percent by 2020, and 50 percent by 2050. Many scientists say these cuts are necessary to keep global temperatures from rising to dangerous levels. The United Nation's climate science experts, for example, say worldwide emissions must peak no later than 2015 to prevent serious effects on the environment.

Bush administration officials note that despite setting these ambitious goals, most countries within the Kyoto system haven't even begun to reduce their greenhouse emissions.

In his speech Wednesday, Bush emphasized an approach that urges the major emitting nations — including China and India, which have no obligations under Kyoto — to come up with their own plans to reduce greenhouse gases. If they did, Bush said, he would be willing to commit to an international treaty to enforce those goals. However, he is likely to be long gone from the White House before that could happen.

Bush criticized pending legislation in Congress to limit greenhouse gases. What would these proposed measures do?

Congress has proposed several bills, and the leading measure requires U.S. industry to sharply reduce emissions. Bush opposes such mandatory limits.

Most of these bills would institute either a tax on greenhouse gases or a "cap and trade" system that would set an emissions quota for companies. Those that exceed their quota could buy credits from companies that emit less than the quota, creating a "market" in carbon credits. The White House so far has not shown support for a tax or the cap and trade idea. Administration officials have been meeting with Republican congressional leaders to hash out what Republicans might endorse when debate begins in Congress this summer.

Bush also condemned the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling that the federal government must determine if climate-warming carbon dioxide is a threat to human health and, if it is, limit the country's emissions. He said laws written to protect the air or endangered species or other parts of the environment should not be applied to climate issues. Most environmental groups disagree. They note that Bush proposed six years ago that U.S. emissions should peak in 2012. He backed off that promise and has now extended it to 2025.

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