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United States

Climate still low priority as emissions go on rising

Falling energy prices due to deregulation are making it so hard for renewables to penetrate the market that figures for future US emissions were being revised upwards only days after Clinton announced them. Most Americans do not consider the climate debate urgent and rank the threat of global warming well behind other environmental concerns, according to a recent survey. Only 25% say they worry a great deal about global warming.

America's role in the upcoming global warming conference in Japan is looking as broadly controversial as ever. Barely two weeks before the start of the talks on international accord, the key player likely to spearhead the US team, Under-secretary of State Timothy Wirth, unexpectedly quit his post, leaving his colleagues in more disarray than ever.

The US is considered to have most at stake in Kyoto because of its level of pollution, yet most people do not consider the climate debate urgent and rank the threat of global warming well behind other environmental concerns, according to a recent survey. Only 25% say they worry a great deal about global warming.

Timothy Wirth, considered a friend of renewables, announced on November 19 that he was resigning his position just after Kyoto, probably at the end of December. His sudden leaving, after two years on the job, to become president of Ted "CNN" Turner's new United Nations Foundation, suggests just how frustrating and thankless his role may have been as chief player on a team overseen by the administration of President Clinton. The foundation has been set up to disburse $1 billion donated by Turner.

Little public concern

Meantime a new poll by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press indicates that 70% of Americans believe that rich and poor countries should equally share the task of dealing with the threat of greenhouse gases, even although industrial nations such as the US have been the largest offenders. Indeed, the US is by far the world's single largest polluter of CO2 per head of population. Only 19% of those interviewed by Pew thought that poorer countries like China should be allowed to contribute less financially.

The Pew survey found that most Americans do not consider the climate debate urgent and rank the threat of global warming well behind other environmental concerns such as pollution of lakes and rivers (61%), clean up of toxic wastes (59%), dirty air (47%) and loss of wildlife habitat (46%).

Nearly three of every four Americans say they would pay five cents more for a gallon of petrol, 60% say the would pay as much as 25% more to deal with the potential problem -- but only if other nations address it as well. The concession is not much, though, since US petrol -- at around $1.50 a gallon -- costs far less than anywhere else in the west where $4 a gallon (American) in northern Europe is normal.

The renewables FACTOR

Also on the eve of Kyoto, the US Department of Energy (DOE) announced that US emissions will grow faster than previously believed. This will make it more difficult for the US to live up to Clinton's proposed cap of emissions of these gases at 1990 levels over the next 10-15 years. Economic growth will be slightly higher than expected. Consumption of electricity will also go up faster, as prices are lower than had been expected, according to the DOE, based on figures from the Energy Information Administration, an arm of the DOE.

It had been thought that carbon emissions would have to be cut by 28-30% for the US to reach 1990 levels in 2010. But now that needed cut looks more like 35%, says the DOE. In part the prediction is based on the fact that lower electricity prices will make it harder for renewables to gain a foothold in a deregulated electricity market. Thus emissions will increase more quickly.

Indeed it is being estimated that emissions will rise 45% in America because consumers will use 27% more energy in 2002 than they do today. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) immediately lamented what it called an alarming new forecast. "Much remains to be done to transform our current environmentally destructive patterns of energy production and consumption," said AWEA. "We must act soon to being a transition to clean energy sources such as wind."

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