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Great Lakes Article:

Light touch air plan: Bush answer to Kyoto mandates relies too much on incentives

Sunday, 03/03/2002
Grand Rapids Press


President Bush's rejection last year of the Kyoto greenhouse-gas proposal created a duty for him to come up with a substantial clean-up idea of his own. The plan he has dubbed the "Clear Skies Initiative" doesn't do it.

The approach relies too much on economic incentives and voluntary cooperation by industries and not enough on hard-and-fast mandates and deadlines. Without such a firm framework for progress, chances are remote that anything significant will be done about emissions of the so-called greenhouse gases that may be contributing to global climate change.

There also is something to be said for respecting international opinion on this subject. The United States needs the cooperation of other nations across a range of economic, defense and environmental issues -- the war on terrorism foremost among them. It follows that the United States should at least move in the same general direction of its international neighbors in the matter of world air pollution.

That isn't to say that the 1997 Kyoto treaty should have been accepted by this country. The drastic reductions it required in U.S. emissions -- approximately a 25 percent cut in a decade -- were unrealistic and would have assured the transfer of major parts of the American economy to developing nations. All of those countries, including major economic competitors China and India, were exempted from the emissions-reduction mandates. The U.S. Senate reacted to the treaty with a 95-0 vote opposing any agreement that didn't require equal compliance by developing nations. President Clinton, who had a hand in writing the agreement, didn't bother to send it to the Senate for ratification. Formal rejection last spring by Mr. Bush was a foregone conclusion.

But if not Kyoto, then what? The president's plan calls for $4.5 billion in tax incentives to nudge industries toward greenhouse-gas reductions and for consumers to buy energy-conserving appliances and fuel-cell cars. Industries could earn pollution-control credits which could be traded or applied if a binding system of caps is adopted in the future. This essentially voluntary program would apply to emissions of sulfur dioxide, mercury and nitrogen oxides. Missing is carbon dioxide, the most prevalent of greenhouse gases and a primary emission of coal-burning electric power plants.

The president wants to give this market-based approach some time, switching to a tougher system later if progress isn't made. But 2012, the time Mr. Bush has in mind, conveniently arrives well after he's out of office. Better that the binding standards be put in place now. Rules could be devised that would not destroy the economy but that would push utilities and other industries toward significant targets. Firm direction now also could influence plant design decisions that carry across decades.

The Bush plan also gives no clue to what might be done in the rest of the world. He had rightly criticized the Kyoto treaty's free pass for China and Third World countries, a group that includes some of the world's biggest polluters. Indeed, that huge hole made the treaty's effectiveness extremely dubious. But Mr. Bush has offered no alternative, save for some modest economic incentives for developing countries.

The president ought to reconsider his emission-control strategy. Congress should push the point. The Earth's surface temperature did rise in the 20th century. Though the amount was slight, it showed a pattern that must not be overlooked. This is one issue that, even on a cold winter day, should generate heat and light.

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