Oops! He Did It Again

Bush Low Balls G8 Climate Agreement

President Bush again weakened global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at last week's G8 summit, write Dan Weiss and Alexandra Kougentakis.

G8 leaders pose for the official photo at the G8 summit last week on the island of Hokkaido, Japan. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
G8 leaders pose for the official photo at the G8 summit last week on the island of Hokkaido, Japan. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

President George W. Bush is at it again, weakening global agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This time, it was the G8 “Climate Pledge,” produced at the just completed meeting in Hokkaido, Japan. This year’s agreement, as usual, lacked any binding commitments, leading the carbon reduction agency of the United Kingdom to criticize the G8 leaders, including the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for their "abrogation of responsibility."

Nonetheless, the Bush administration spun this agreement as an “action [to] advance work on climate change.” Yet the only hope for this G8 agreement to yield forward progress on global warming is if the Bush administration follows the spirit and the letter of the agreement by undertaking a number of specific steps to reduce global warming emissions. Likely? Hardly. Even optimists are pessimistic about the chances of this occurrence.

This year’s agreement undermined the target adopted at last year’s G8 meeting in Germany. The 2007 G8 summary report set the greenhouse gas reduction goal at a “halving of global emissions by 2050,” as agreed to in the Kyoto Protocol by the European Union, Japan, and Canada. By including only the Kyoto countries, the 2007 G8 agreement implicitly endorsed the protocol’s reductions from 1990 levels.

This year’s agreement eliminated that reference to the 1990 baseline. Instead, the agreement says only that all of the G8 nations will “consider and adopt…the goal of achieving at least 50 percent reduction of global emissions by 2050.” Omitting the qualifying reference to the Kyoto agreement leads to the assumption that the 50 percent reduction is from current levels. This is a far less stringent standard, given that total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were 15 percent higher in 2006 than in 1990.

The document remains ambiguous about whether the United States actually agreed to a binding reductions target, which Bush has fiercely resisted in the past. The requirement that signatories “consider and adopt” reductions is quite vague. Does the U.S. Senate’s consideration of the Climate Security Act in June meet the standard? Is this like a dieter who “considers” losing weight before polishing off another slice of pie?

Bush is also at odds with the rest of the G8 over timetables for reduction. The G8 pledges “to achieve absolute emissions reductions and, where applicable, first stop the growth of emissions as soon as possible.” Yet President Bush has already declared that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow until 2025.

It’s time for the United States to catch up with the rest of the world. The most cost-effective place to begin is to implement measures to dramatically increase energy efficiency. According to an analysis by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, "Improving energy efficiency in the buildings-and-appliances sector could offset some 85% of the projected . . . demand for electricity in 2030, largely negating the need for incremental coal-fired power plants." Further, the McKinsey report points out that energy efficiency would substantially abate the costs for greenhouse gas reductions.

The G8 climate agreement mostly overlooks the potential for reductions from efficiency. Instead, it merely calls for more vague “mid-term, aspirational goals for energy efficiency.” Businesses and households hoping to reduce costs by lowering energy use are left to wonder if President Bush will implement more advanced efficiency standards for buildings and appliances and extend efficiency tax incentives.

Nowhere does the pledge mention binding emissions reductions from a cap-and-trade system, a reliable way to reduce emissions. Instead, the agreement relies on the application of future technology to “enable us to meet our sustainable economic development and energy security objectives.” This unambitious path is taken from President Bush’s voluntary approach to greenhouse gas reductions established during the first year of his presidency. We know that relying on technology without reduction requirements has already failed. Since Bush took office, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 210 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent, or 3 percent. This is equivalent to the emissions of an additional 38 million cars on the road.

The single word most conspicuously missing from the G8 climate pledge is “mandate,” given the history of voluntary approaches. In its place are empty words devoid of commitment to reductions: "consider,” “aspirational,” “technology.” Michael Grub, the chief economist of the UK’s carbon reduction agency, said of the document, “I’m not sure I can see a single thing that’s actually going to reduce emissions." That’s why it was so easy for Bush to sign it, sit back, and do nothing.

President Bush has six months left in his presidency, which is more than enough time to stop spinning and start doing. If he were serious about reductions and the G8 climate pledge, he would live up to the spirit as well the letter of the agreement. Here are some steps that he must take to make his actions match his rhetoric:

  • Open, read, and adopt an EPA-issued “endangerment finding” for carbon dioxide to jumpstart the process of reducing greenhouse gases using existing government authority. The Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and thus subject to Clean Air Act rules for pollutants.
  • Unfortunately, the White House did not even read EPA’s draft endangerment finding, and returned it unopened. Instead EPA just announced an “Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule Making” that effectively punts its finding decision to the next president. He will need to make the endangerment finding yet again before he can require reductions of greenhouse gases from power plants and other sources, further delaying reductions.

  • Reverse EPA’s December 2007 decision to deny California’s waiver request to allow it to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. So far, the White House has refused to even release the documents that detail communications with the EPA that led to the waiver denial in 2007.
  • Support California’s comprehensive economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions levels to 1990 levels (cutting 168 million metric tons) by 2020. California’s plan has been widely praised for its balance and cost-effectiveness and will deliver significant benefits to public health, job growth, and economic competitiveness. California’s bold leadership will result in a 30 percent cut in carbon emissions over business as usual while saving money over the long term. Given the projected adverse effects of climate change, including more water shortages, climate-related health effects, and wildfires, the potential costs of implementing the California plan pale beside the cost of doing nothing. California deserves President Bush’s support.
  • Fund intensive carbon capture and sequestration research. The G8 document specifically urges the development of CCS as a “clean energy technology.” Bush abandoned the most ambitious CCS demonstration project, Futuregen, this past January, but smaller research and pilot efforts continue to hold promise—if they are fully funded.
  • Support the extension of the production and investment tax credits for wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources, as well as those for energy efficiency. These tax credits have been responsible for the recent impressive growth of the solar and wind energy industries in the United States. But with a looming expiration date on the credits, renewable energy companies have been hesitant to invest in ambitious projects. Championing these credits would not only promote a clean source of energy to abate greenhouse gas emissions, but would be a huge boon for the U.S. economy as well. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has opposed numerous attempts to extend them.

Although this was his last G8 summit, President Bush could still take initial steps to reduce global warming pollution. As of now, though, he hasn’t shown signs of changing—Bush waited only one week after signing the G8 pledge before defying the Supreme Court and ignoring scientists by blocking the endangerment finding on carbon dioxide prepared by EPA scientists and professionals. The United States is already well behind the aggressive reduction efforts of most other G8 countries, and Bush has opposed nearly every action to fulfill the spirit of the G8 Climate Pledge.

President Bush is likely to end his tenure as he began it: helping big oil by opposing solutions that would benefit the rest of us. The next president must reverse the United States’ recent dismal failure at the G8 by providing progressive leadership to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and begin the transition to a low-carbon, low-energy price, more jobs economy.

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Daniel J. Weiss

Senior Fellow