By Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 23, 2007
Amid a mounting sense of urgency about the need for action to slow climate change, President Bush this week will be playing what is, for him, an unusually prominent role in high-level diplomatic meetings on how to confront global warming.
What he will not do, officials said, is chart any shift in policies that have put him at odds with much of the world on the issue.
Tomorrow, at a private dinner on climate change hosted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Bush will join about two dozen other heads of state, several from countries most vulnerable to higher temperatures and rising seas. On Thursday, he will address a White House-hosted climate change conference that will include senior officials from rapidly developing nations such as China, India and Brazil, which have been reluctant to divert economic resources to curb their rising greenhouse gas emissions.
Top Bush administration officials said the president is not planning to alter his opposition to mandatory limits on greenhouse gases or to stray from his emphasis on promoting new technologies, especially for nuclear power and for the storage of carbon dioxide produced by coal plants.
James L. Connaughton, head of the president's Council on Environmental Quality, said Bush's goals are to come up with standard "harmonized" tools for measuring carbon dioxide emissions; review current climate policies around the world; kick off talks about ways to cut greenhouse gases in specific sectors of the economy; and aim for a "solid handoff to the next president, regardless of party." Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. is expected to propose lower tariffs and export credits for clean energy technology.
That could disappoint many of the diplomats, activists, experts and business executives converging on New York and Washington this week with higher hopes.
"It's a great initiative that [Bush] has taken," said Lars G. Josefsson, chief executive of the European utility Vattenfall AB and an adviser to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "But of course with that initiative, he also takes on a responsibility, which means he has to deliver."
The sense of urgency comes not only from new evidence of climate change but also because the pioneering Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. Although the United States never ratified the protocol, and developing countries have no obligations under it, the accord has served in Europe as the basis for a far-reaching cap-and-trade system for limiting emissions. (Such systems allow companies to buy and sell the right to emit global warming gases.)
United Nations Foundation President Timothy E. Wirth, who, as President Bill Clinton's undersecretary of state for global affairs, helped broker the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, said the political atmosphere is more conducive to forging a global warming pact now than it was a decade ago. "The environment is one of much greater knowledge, a much greater sense of urgency and a rapidly changing politics," Wirth said.
But he faulted the Bush administration for promoting dialogue without pressing for concrete commitments. "When you don't want to do anything, talk process. Nowhere in this process is this administration talking about a concrete commitment," he said. "Is this administration going to be the one to break the logjam? I haven't seen any evidence of that."
Bush's meetings are not the only ones planned this week. More than 80 heads of state will discuss climate issues at the United Nations tomorrow, and Indonesia will lead talks among countries that hope to be compensated for limiting deforestation, which contributes to global warming. Nongovernmental groups, such as the Clinton Global Initiative, are also holding events.
All these meetings are precursors to a two-week session in December in Bali under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the 15-year-old agreement that governs global-warming negotiations.
Secretary General Ban, who has made climate change a top priority, is seeking to build enough political momentum to ensure that the Bali meeting provides the "road map" to replace the Kyoto Protocol. Robert C. Orr, the U.N. point man on climate issues, said: "We want to elevate the climate change debate to the political level. Talking to heads of state, you find they are more flexible and more focused on the big picture than their negotiators."
To put the next agreement in place, the world's nations must complete a pact in late 2009, most officials think.
One European official, who asked not to be identified for fear of jeopardizing the talks, said he fears that the Bush administration's aims for next week amount to "a necessary but not sufficient agenda" for negotiators preparing for Bali.
"If it looks like this is setting a ceiling for Bali, rather than a floor, then the Europeans will have difficulty with this," the official said. "It's not yet clear how this will turn out."
Businesses are also looking for definite measures. "These meetings are all vital steppingstones to achieving an agreement for the post-2012 period," said Andrei Marcu, chief executive of the International Emissions Trading Association, a nonprofit group. He said businesses are seeking "clarity" and "predictability."
Some hopes that Bush might be softening his position stem from speculation that he might support bipartisan congressional moves to draw up a mandatory program for capping greenhouse gases in the United States. Several proposals have been made in the Senate, and key committees in both chambers are drafting bills.
Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), head of the House subcommittee on energy and air quality and one of the lead lawmakers on cap-and-trade legislation, said he met with Connaughton, head of Bush's environmental council, and White House economic adviser Al Hubbard and came away believing that White House support for some sort of cap-and-trade bill is possible. "There haven't been any stoplights yet," he said.
But Connaughton indicated that the administration still has objections to cap-and-trade proposals.
He said the administration thinks cap-and-trade bills would treat consumers unfairly and drive investment out of the country. The White House will oppose anything that would "make Granny pay 20 percent more for electricity" if that money were to "go to pay for more efficiency in China," Connaughton said, questioning whether "a woman on fixed income in Ohio should pay for carbon dioxide reductions in the oil sector."
Connaughton said the administration prefers measures that would limit emissions or promote technologies in specific sectors of the economy, such as raising fuel economy and appliance efficiency standards.
Environmental groups said the Bush proposals for raising fuel economy standards would not be enough. Environmental Defense said last week that even the relatively stringent Senate proposal for fuel economy, combined with the House's requirements for renewable-fuels use and conservation incentives, would hold carbon dioxide emissions only to 104 percent of 2005 levels in 2030 and 111 percent in 2040.
By contrast, a German environment ministry spokesman said in an e-mail last week, Germany holds that developed countries need to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and by 60 to 80 percent below by 2050.
Some experts said that if the administration is not willing to make commitments, it could undercut its mission of drawing developing nations into climate regulation.
"The view of the Chinese government is that the developed countries, which are responsible for the bulk of the CO2in the atmosphere, should take the lead," said Erica S. Downs, an expert on China and energy at the Brookings Institution. "While many in the U.S. like to argue that China should take the initiative because it is on the verge of surpassing the U.S. as the largest CO2emitter, the Chinese like to focus on the fact that their per-capita CO2emissions are only a fraction of those of the U.S. and that China's CO2emissions in recent decades are only a small fraction of the world total."
China, eager to burnish its image ahead of the Beijing Olympics and in the wake of product-safety issues, may highlight its energy conservation measures and an initiative to include environmental issues as one measure of the performance of provincial officials. But such steps are relatively modest.
"If the U.S. manages actually to pass some legislation that includes mandatory emissions reductions, the Chinese would probably find their way to making some legal commitment," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, who recently visited Chinese officials. "Absent that, I don't see China doing that."