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Climate change in Washington.

Shortly before the 1992 Earth Summit, U.S. presidential candidate Bill Clinton blasted incumbent President George Bush for his failure to develop a climate plan that would address his country's distinction as the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases. Sixteen months later, in an October ceremony on the White House lawn, President Clinton presented a national climate plan intended to "return U.S. greenhouse gases to the 1990 level by the year 2000."

The Clinton climate plan can be seen as either half green or half brown, depending on the lens you wear. It consists of 50 individual initiatives, many of them voluntary, intended to accomplish such goals as accelerating the development of energy-efficient motors, controlling methane leakage at landfills, and commercializing renewable energy technologies.

These are worthy goals, but doubts remain about whether enough money will be available to accomplish them, and whether they will be undermined by government subsidies for coal and other fossil fuels. Left out of the package is any effort to pass environmental costs on to polluters via energy taxes, as many countries have proposed. Moreover, though he once promised to tighten fuel economy standards for automobiles--the most rapidly growing source of U.S. emissions--President Clinton has decided, under pressure from U.S. auto makers to defer that question for another year.

Still, President Clinton argues that his climate plan is "the most aggressive and most specific first step that any nation on this planet has taken . . ." Well, not exactly. The United States still lags behind several countries that adopted ambitious climate plans prior to the Earth Summit. The Netherlands has a detailed, comprehensive program to cut its emissions 5 percent by 2000, and Denmark is aiming for a 20 percent cut by 2005. And to be fair, these countries start with per capita emissions that are already 30 percent below the U.S. level.

Measured by its own goal of "stabilizing" emissions, the U.S. plan still falls short, since it allows production of the most important greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, to rise 3 percent by 2000, and even more in later years. (The European Community, which has also promised to stabilize emissions, now projects a similar overshoot--a 4 percent increase by 2000.) The U.S. plan is also a far cry from what scientists believe ultimately will be required to stabilize the earth's climate--a 60 to 80 percent cut in global emissions, replacing most of today's fossil fuels with renewable energy.

While the Clinton climate plan is not the ambitious reordering of energy priorities that Al Gore urged in his 1992 book, it is still a big step forward. In contrast to the Bush administration, which put off dealing with the climate problem for four years--and provided cover for other countries that were not doing much more--the new U.S. plan will force government agencies and the private sector to assume greater responsibility.

While the United States has not yet achieved world leadership on climate stabilization, it has at least joined the growing list of responsible nations that have begun to address the problem.

CHRISTOPHER FLAVIN Vice President
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Author:Flavin, Christopher
Publication:World Watch
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Words:515
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