By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 17, 1996
The Clinton administration announced yesterday that it is seeking the adoption of a binding agreement requiring the world's industrial nations to reduce the levels of industrial emissions that are contributing to global warming.
Undersecretary of State Timothy E. Wirth, appearing at an international conference on climate change in Geneva, outlined a proposal that would establish goals for reducing emissions of "greenhouse gases" -- pollutants from smokestacks and tailpipes that scientists have identified as a major contributor to global warming -- and would require industrial nations to meet those goals. The details of the plan should be worked out by the end of next year, Wirth said.
The proposal represents a departure from current administration policy, which relies on factories and utilities to introduce voluntary measures to cut overall emissions of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the year 2000.
"If you look at where we've gotten so far, we're going to miss those targets," Wirth said in a telephone interview from Geneva. "It seems to us that a voluntary approach doesn't do it."
Of the leading signatories of the 1992 Climate Change Treaty, which established the target emissions-reduction levels, only Great Britain and Germany are expected to meet the goals by 2000. The United States, the world's largest consumer of fossil fuels, is expected to reach only 7 to 10 percent above the 1990 target at the end of the century, Wirth said.
The U.S. proposal is designed as an endorsement of a major report released late last year by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The U.N.-appointed body of scientists concluded that there is significant evidence Earth's temperatures are rising and that "greenhouse emissions" caused by human activity are a key contributor to the increase.
In recent weeks, a coalition of U.S industries and oil producing nations has sought to raise questions about the IPCC report, saying it was based on faulty or incomplete science. The coalition has used the ongoing climate change conference in Geneva, a gathering of the 150 nations that signed the agreement, to advance its campaign against the IPCC.
In his speech yesterday, Wirth defended the IPCC conclusions. "We are not swayed by and strongly object to the recent allegations about the IPCC conclusions," Wirth told the gathering. "The science calls on us to take urgent action; the IPCC report is the best science we have, and we should use it."
The Global Climate Coalition and other U.S. industry groups attacked Wirth's proposal. "A cap on greenhouse gas . . . emissions from the electric utility industry would have severe repercussions for the U.S. economy and the environment," John Novak, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, said in a statement to reporters. The voluntary measures already introduced by utilities to cut emissions are proving successful, he added.
Environmental activists and scientific researchers endorsed the U.S. proposal. "This represents an acknowledgment that there is a very serious problem with warming and that something concrete must be done about it," said Michael Oppenheimer, a climate change specialist at the Environmental Defense Fund. "Most importantly, it states that it is time for industrial countries to go beyond statements of good will and make a real and meaningful commitment to achieving reductions."
Some activists suggested the proposal, introduced in the midst of President Clinton's re-election bid, was largely a campaign ploy designed to buttress the administration's standing in the environmental community.
Wirth said that support for the proposal was "surprisingly strong" among participants at the Geneva conference, but acknowledged that passage of mandatory emissions-reduction measures would be difficult to achieve. The administration has until now stopped short of mandatory emissions reduction measures. Administration officials have said it would be futile to try to pass such proposals in a Republican-controlled congress that has sought to cut federal funding for climate change research.
But support for an international agreement would probably encourage Congress to support emissions reductions, Eileen B. Claussen, assistant secretary of state for international environmental affairs, said in an interview.
Wirth declined to suggest what emissions targets should be established in an international treaty. But the goals should be moderate and achievable, he said, adding that industries should be given flexibility in how they reach the targets. He rejected more drastic proposals put forward by some nations for reductions of up to 20 percent over the next ten years.