President Bush's Gas Emission Reduction Plan Is A Lot Of Hot Air

22 February 2002

By Stentor Danielson

Last Thursday, President Bush unveiled his long-awaited plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Bush promised this plan a year ago as an alternative to the international Kyoto Protocol, which he rejected as fatally flawed. The plan aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by allowing their increase and by not forcing companies to comply with emissions targets.

Bush seems to be building on the spectacular failure of his environmental policies in Texas. As governor, he was forced into enacting emissions-reduction legislation by the Environmental Protection Agency, which threatened to have highway funding for the state withdrawn if Bush did not take steps to regulate Texan industry. Bush responded with a plan that called for voluntary reductions. Texas’ output of greenhouse gases was slashed by a big three percent. As in Texas, Bush wants to be able to claim credit for implementing environmental policies (thus scoring points among voters concerned about the environment) without actually regulating emissions (thus appeasing his big business constituency).

In a supposed innovation in thinking about greenhouse gas emissions, Bush’s plan looks to reduce emissions "intensity," instead of absolute levels of emissions. Intensity is the ratio of emissions to the size of the economy. Bush’s goal is to lower the rate of greenhouse gas emissions from an estimated 183 metric tons per million dollars of gross domestic product in 2002 to 151 metric tons per million dollars of GDP in 2012.

Essentially what the Bush plan hopes for is economic growth that outstrips the growth in emissions. This outcome is likely without any intervention, as economic growth in the United States is primarily occurring in non-industrial sectors, which produce little greenhouse emissions. Since 1917, when emissions intensity peaked, the intensity of emissions in the United States has been declining at an average of 1.5 percent per year -- very close to Bush’s two percent per year target.

Bush essentially made the argument that nothing needs to be done to reduce emissions. He said, "This new approach is based on the common sense idea that sustainable economic growth is the key to environmental progress -- because it is growth that provides the resources for investment in clean technologies." In other words, we should focus on economic growth (which has been a constant top rhetorical priority for Bush since he appeared on the national scene) and let the environment take care of itself. To say otherwise would be to return to his long-held position that improving the environment and a healthy economy are mutually exclusive.

However, Bush has his cause and effect backwards. Improvements in the environment have the potential to create economic and other improvements. Studies submitted to the EPA’s climate change division last year by 12 states estimated that the states could reduce greenhouse emissions by 17 percent by 2020 while saving $8 billion and creating a net gain of several thousand new jobs.

Environmental regulation would also be beneficial to national security, as a key component of security, (in the mind of the former oil man in the White House), is reducing dependence on foreign oil. Small improvements in energy efficiency would go much farther toward accomplishing this goal than drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Further, there are profound negative economic consequences of inaction. Climate change is expected to change the ranges of many major tropical diseases, exposing new populations to epidemics and creating an increased burden on the health care system, as well as reducing productivity because workers will not be as healthy. Climate change can also alter the areas in which certain crops can be grown, disrupting the nation’s domestic food production as well as foreign agriculture that we depend on.

Climate change is also expected to increase the frequency of violent weather events. Violent storms cause economic damage to the afflicted area as well as draining the rest of the country’s resources in order to provide aid. Insurance companies are contemplating dropping coverage or raising fees in order to compensate for the increased risks of bad weather associated with climate change.

Reducing intensity alone will not reduce human impacts on global climate. The climate problem is not due to producing too much gas for our level of affluence, it is producing too much gas, period. Any scheme that is designed to allow emissions to grow indefinitely (albeit at slowed rates) will not address climate change.

Humans are changing the planet’s climate because our emissions of greenhouse gases exceed the amount that can be reabsorbed by sinks such as forests. In order to stabilize our impact on climate, we must reduce emissions until they are even with the amount of pollution that can be reabsorbed. Yet Bush is praising himself for shifting attention away from that fact.

The emissions targets Bush set are voluntary. The plan calls for some minor incentives for emissions reduction, chief among which is a proposal to allow companies to count reductions made now against hypothetical future regulations that are actually enforced. This is not much of an incentive.

Bush is relying on the good intentions of companies whose favor he is specifically courting by not making reductions mandatory. While it would be ideal if corporations, either out of the goodness of CEOs’ hearts or in response to consumer pressure, voluntarily reduced emissions, history has shown that these mechanisms can’t be trusted.

Hopefully Bush’s greenhouse gas plan will not fool anyone. He simply wants to appear concerned about the environment without truly doing anything to protect it.

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