U.S. Industry Pledges Voluntary Greenhouse Gas Cuts

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 13, 2003 (ENS) - Top officials from the Bush administration are showcasing a list of voluntary industry commitments to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases as evidence that the President's plan to combat global climate change is working. Critics belittled the administration's claims and its voluntary plan, calling it reckless, and warning that it is likely to increase, rather than reduce, greenhouse gas emissions.


President George W. Bush favors the voluntary approach to greenhouse gas reductions. (Photo courtesy The White House)
"Voluntary goals for reducing global warming pollution make no more sense than voluntary standards for drinking water or toxic cleanup," said Katherine Silverthorne, director of World Wildlife Fund's U.S. climate change program. "With public health and safety and our environment at risk, failure to establish legally binding reduction targets is simply irresponsible."

Unveiled Wednesday by Department of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, Climate VISION - which stands for Voluntary Innovative Sector Initiatives: Opportunities Now - is a voluntary, public-private partnership aimed at encouraging reductions in the projected growth of America's greenhouse gas emissions.

"It is important to remember that government itself will not appreciably reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Abraham said. "Industry, and commercial businesses and ordinary Americans living their daily lives, will."

The program is the cornerstone of the President's commitment to reducing the nation's greenhouse gas intensity by 18 percent. Greenhouse gas intensity is the ratio of emissions to economic output. In February 2002, President George W. Bush made this commitment and urged American businesses and industries to make efforts to move toward that 18 percent goal.

The United States is responsible for more than 25 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, which are widely believed to be the major cause of global warming.


Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (Photo courtesy Argonne National Lab)
At Wednesday's event, Abraham said the administration has received voluntary commitments from American industries that will enable the nation to reach the President's goal. He praised voluntary efforts from a wide array of industry organizations representing automakers, chemical companies, mining operations, nuclear energy, oil and gas companies as well as the iron and steel industry.

As an example, Abraham pointed to the American Petroleum Institute, which says it will increase the aggregate energy efficiency of its U.S. refinery operations by 10 percent from 2002 to 2012.

The American Chemistry Council, representing 90 percent of the chemical industry, has agreed to an 18 percent overall greenhouse gas intensity reduction target by 2012, the energy secretary said.

Yet critics fear that relying on industry to act voluntarily will do little to curb emissions. Some believe the administration is using greenhouse gas intensity in order to cloak a policy of inaction.

"Wasting crucial time with these intensity reduction targets does more harm than good," Silverthorne said.

Reducing greenhouse gas intensity is not the same as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Intensity is a relative indicator, expressed in kilograms of emissions per dollar of economic output, explained Bill Prindle, policy director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

"Their approach is clever in that it shows apparent progress by reducing intensity," Prindle said, "but we would have to double our current rate of intensity reduction to see meaningful drops in emissions."


Diamond Shamrock petroleum refinery in Commerce City, Colorado (Photo by David Parsons courtesy NREL)
ACEEE research shows that the Bush policy will result in a 13 percent increase in emissions, only two percent less than emissions levels without these new voluntary commitments.

Critics point to a host of other policies, including the Clear Skies initiative and the failure to push for meaningful increases to fuel efficiency standards, as further evidence the administration has no desire to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2001, soon after taking office, President Bush withdrew Clinton era support for the Kyoto Protocol, an international accord to reduce global greenhouse emissions through a system of legally binding limits on 37 industrialized countries. The President has been adamant in his opposition to any policy that mandates reductions in emissions. The science behind global warming is uncertain, the administration argues, and mandating reductions could harm economic growth.

Supporters of the President's policy believe that voluntary agreements by industry are the best way for the nation to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions without serious economic turmoil.

"I am not aware of voluntary programs that have failed," said Dr. Linn Draper, chairman, president and chief executive officer of the American Electric Power Company and the chairman of the Business Roundtable's Environment, Technology and the Economy Task Force.

"I think that we ought to try a voluntary program and see how well it works," Draper added. "I think it would be a big mistake to say it's not going to work before we even try it."

But environmentalists and many Congressional Democrats, as well as some Republicans, are convinced that the President's faith in voluntary, industry led initiatives is misguided.

"Though they may make for good P.R., voluntary programs like this just don't produce results," said Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut.

"At the 1992 summit in Rio, the U.S. agreed to the Convention on Climate Change and signed up to a 'voluntary' goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Our greenhouse gas emissions proceeded to increase by 14 percent between 1990 and 2000. We cannot afford to fall again for the false promise of promises alone," Senator Lieberman said.

Last month, Lieberman, and fellow Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, introduced a bill that would establish a market based emissions credit trading system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

On Wednesday, Lieberman, along with Senators Jim Jeffords, a Vermont Independent, and Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, reintroduced the Clean Power Act, which would use an emissions trading program to mandate industry cuts to emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury. This contrasts with the Bush administration's Clear Skies initiative, which does not address carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Working with the administration and its Congressional allies will not be easy, Jeffords said. "Their actions so far on air quality matters have not fostered an atmosphere of trust and cooperation."


Heavy duty truck fueled by liquefied natural gas (Photo courtesy Acurex Environmental )
But the administration appears unfazed by the steady stream of criticism. The voluntary commitments the administration has lined up, Abraham said, are "impressive testimony to the ability of the private sector to get the job done."

As the administration praised industry efforts, industry representatives commended the President for focusing on voluntary efforts, rather than mandates, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"The President's climate initiative is a critical first step towards reversing the growth in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions," said Edison Electric Institute president Thomas Kuhn. "By encouraging voluntary, cost effective solutions, it will curb emissions without undermining our energy supply or putting the brakes on economic growth."

Environmentalists could not disagree more, said Sierra Club's executive director Carl Pope. "This irresponsible policy simply provides cover for polluters to spew more heat trapping pollution into the air. If you really want to help your friend quit smoking, you don't make it easier for him to buy cigarettes."