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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Clinton's CO2 Plan

Air Date: Week of

John Greenberg reports from Washington on the White House's struggle to craft a plan to reduce greenhouse gases. The plan was due in August, but the administration has been unable to cut through the still-raging debate among lobbyists, and within its own ranks, over jobs versus the environment.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

When President Clinton came into office, he brought bold intentions to fight the threat of global warming from carbon gas emissions. First he proposed a broad tax on energy that would have encouraged the conservation of carbon-rich fossil fuels, and then he promised to have ready by August a detailed plan to cut greenhouse gases. Both moves marked a sharp break with the Bush Administration, which had balked at international pressure to cap greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels. Well, the President's energy plan died in the Senate, and August has come and gone without a specific greenhouse plan in sight. As Jon Greenberg reports from Washington, there are a number of sticking points - not the least of which is cars.

GREENBERG: The Administration's goal is to stop Americans from putting about a hundred million metric tons of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere. That's roughly the difference between what the country released in 1990 and what, if nothing is done, it's projected to release in the year 2000. For environmentalists, Mr. Clinton's plan is the litmus test of his commitment to prevent global warming. People familiar with the wrangling inside the Administration over what the plan should include say the White House has separated proposals into three categories: the easy ones, the tough ones, and the non-starters. In the easy column are such things as encouraging the use of more efficient lighting and setting efficiency standards for many kinds of equipment. These ideas are likely to end up in the plan. The fate of items listed as tough is decidedly murkier. A prime example is increasing the fuel efficiency of cars. Dan Becker, with the Sierra Club, says his group will judge the President on the basis of how his plan deals with that.

BECKER: The President basically has a challenge. There are, he can piece together a series of relatively modest steps, each of which gets you one or two percent of the way toward the goal, or he can do a few of those and add to that the biggest single step to curbing global warming, which is making our cars go further on a gallon of gas. And that's really the big challenge for the Administration in that effort. Are they going to bite the bullet and take on the auto industry?

GREENBERG: The auto industry is lobbying hard against mandatory increases. Mike Stanton with the American Automobile Manufacturers Association warns that a hike in the corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standard would hurt sales and cost jobs.

STANTON: The scientific community is divided on the effects of global warming, and therefore we don't think that it's prudent to take any draconian steps or any steps that would disrupt our economic recovery or cause hardship, unless those are warranted and quite honestly the science is not there yet to warrant those actions. So we ought to be taking steps that will eliminate or mitigate CO2 formation, but those steps that make sense from an economic viewpoint.

GREENBERG: The debate over cars is directly linked to another contentious topic - should the plan include measures to reduce emissions below 1990 levels? Environmentalists say after the turn of the century emissions should continue to go down. And they say the only way to do that is by tackling transportation. Scott Hajost, with the Environmental Defense Fund, is concerned that the Administration will try to duck the issue.

HAJOST: I think I've seen a number that approximately 30 percent of US carbon dioxide emissions come from the transport sector. There's a variety of ways that you can get at that CAFE. As one important tool, we would hope that then there are opportunities for the Administration to do something more serious in the transportation sector, which really is critical, not only for the United States, but other industrialized countries, of really reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the period post-2000.

GREENBERG: The environmental community says the President's plan must establish the momentum for deeper reductions, or it will fail to meet the country's obligations under the Global Warming Treaty signed in Brazil at the Earth Summit. But representatives of most industry groups, not just the automobile companies, don't see the need for further reductions. That includes utility companies. Robert Beck of the Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade organization, says his members don't even accept the need for the President's minimal goal of capping emissions in the year 2000.

BECK: We haven't agreed to that specific goal. What we've agreed to is that we would reduce emissions in the most cost-effective manner that we can. We're not sure that that will get us to the exact goal of the 1990 levels in the year 2000, but we do have programs that we've implemented to specifically reduce greenhouse gases or to sequester carbon, that means to work with forestry management and agricultural management to try to take some of the carbon dioxide out of the air rather than specifically focus on emissions.

GREENBERG: Beck's idea of sequestering carbon by such means as planting trees has many supporters in industry. They also think the plan should include incentives to build energy-efficient power plants and factories overseas. They argue that if those facilities produce lower amounts of greenhouse gases than what would have otherwise been built, that's a benefit. Environmentalists think both proposals add up to a giant loophole. The Sierra Club's Dan Becker says polluters would use it to avoid their obligations under whatever plan emerges from the White House.

BECKER: Some of them would prefer that rather than reducing pollution here at home, we should plant trees in, say, Guatemala and then get credit for the amount of carbon dioxide that is turned into wood and leaves in those trees. That really is an appalling concept. The global warming problem is a pollution problem. The way to solve that problem is by reducing the pollution, not by paper transactions with other countries that are unenforceable and probably won't work to reduce the problem anyway.

GREENBERG: Lobbyists on many sides of the issue say debates within the White House have been intense. They have described people such as Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary and Deputy Budget Director Alice Rivlin as pro-business. On the other side, industry lobbyists say they are afraid that Vice-President Gore is pressing for more aggressive measures. The debate over the plan to control greenhouse gases breaks down along the old lines of environment versus the economy. President Clinton promised during the campaign that his policies would end that conflict. The delay in drafting this plan underscores how difficult it has been for him to keep that promise. For Living on Earth, this is Jon Greenberg in Washington.



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