By Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Seeking to counter international pressure to adopt binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions, the Bush administration has been touting the success of three mandatory programs to curb U.S. energy consumption: gas mileage standards for vehicles, efficiency standards for home appliances and state laws requiring utilities to increase their use of renewable energy sources.
But for most of the Bush presidency, the White House has either done little to promote these measures or, in some cases, has actively fought against them. Moreover, the fuel economy and appliance initiatives were first taken years ago to slash energy consumption, long before climate change became a pressing issue.
The administration initially delayed plans to set improved energy-efficiency standards for 22 appliances, which led to a court battle with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. Under a 2006 legal settlement, the Energy Department is now working to finish the rules. The White House also tried to reverse strict efficiency standards for central air conditioners upon Bush's taking office in 2001, a move the NRDC had reversed in a separate lawsuit.
Although the administration imposed modest boosts in the gas mileage standards for light trucks starting in 2003, Bush did not endorse any substantial increase in the mandates for cars until this year's State of the Union address, a proposal that has yet to materialize as regulation.
And while the administration says it supports states that set renewable portfolio standards, which force utilities to use certain levels of renewable energy, it opposes adopting nationwide standards.
"These are just simply words," said Roland Hwang, the NRDC's vehicle policy director. Hwang added that Bush's new goal of increasing overall vehicle fuel efficiency is admirable, but there's "a big question mark" as to whether it will come to fruition before he leaves office.
The administration opens two days of climate change talks this morning that include 16 nations that account for most of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, an event that could become a linguistic minefield over what constitutes "mandatory" measures. In the rest of the world, mandatory limits on global warming gases take the form of a cap-and-trade program that sets nation-by-nation ceilings on emissions. It was the system set up under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, modeled on a U.S. program to stop pollution that causes acid rain.
The administration says it opposes "mandatory" limits on greenhouse gases for the United States but is willing to back "voluntary" limits and mandatory cuts on an industry by industry basis.
"We have a broad portfolio of measures, mandates, incentives and public and private partnerships," said James L. Connaughton, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in an interview last week.
But British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's special representative for climate change, John Ashton, said yesterday that self-imposed targets are not enough. "We need to make commitments to each other, not just to ourselves," Ashton said.
In the run-up to this week's meeting, European delegates have been pushing Bush administration officials to be more precise about the session's outcome. White House aides have been trying to get U.S. allies to commit in advance to endorsing a document whose language they would not disclose, but some delegates have balked.
One delegate said Europeans did not have high hopes for the session but wanted to prevent the Bush administration from using the event to undermine the United Nations' climate negotiating process.
"We didn't come here thinking we will have real results from this," said the European official, who would not be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.
Several developing nations cite the U.S. government's voluntary approach as a reason why they should not be required to adopt mandatory emissions cuts. In a news conference yesterday sponsored by the Center for Clean Air Policy, a policy and research group, Brazil's special representative for climate change, Sergio Serra, said that over the course of this decade, Brazil and China alone will have enacted emissions cuts equivalent to what the United States will accomplish with its voluntary efforts.
"There's a myth that developing countries are doing nothing to address climate change," Serra said.
Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that U.S. average fuel economy improved in both 2005 and 2006, the first consecutive annual increases since the mid-1980s, producing a current average of 20.2 miles per gallon for cars and light duty trucks.
"Automakers are answering President Bush's call to improve fuel economy and decrease our nation's dependency on foreign oil," said EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson in a statement.
The administration has vowed to further increase fuel efficiency by 4 percent a year over 10 years, which would result in a combined fleet average of nearly 35 miles per gallon in 2017. Hwang praised that goal but said he was waiting to see if the EPA actually publishes rules to accomplish it.
On another front, the administration is finalizing two of the 22 standards that will apply to a variety of home appliances, including dishwashers, clothes dryers, water heaters and ovens. Improving those standards and six others over the next five years will lower carbon emissions by 4.7 billion tons over the next 23 years, according to Megan Barnett, a Department of Energy spokeswoman.
"It's a quick and easy way to reduce emissions," she said.
The government's voluntary efficiency program, which awards efficient appliances, products and buildings an "Energy Star" label, translated into greenhouse gas emissions savings last year equivalent to taking 25 million automobiles off the road for a year, according to the EPA.
But Ned Helme, president of the Center for Clean Air Policy, said if the United States had ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which Bush repudiated when he took office, the nation would have had to cut 2.8 billion tons of carbon emissions in 2010, and that these voluntary programs are "not even in the ballpark."
"There's no way the appliance standards and [fuel efficiency] standards would achieve the Kyoto targets for the U.S. in 2010," Helme said.