Tinge of hope in Clinton position

President Bill Clinton unveiled a US programme last month to fight global warming which came under immediate fire for being too lenient from many environmentalists and representatives of the European Commission. Meanwhile industrialists predicted dire consequences for the fast growing US economy.

With just weeks to go to the international climate talks in Kyoto, on October 22 Clinton called for stabilising emissions in industrialised countries by 2010 at 1990 levels, with a modest reduction below 1990 levels by about 2020. EU Environment Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard immediately branded the goal as a "significant step in the wrong direction." The US had previously pledged to meet the stabilisation target by 2000. Top politicians in Germany, Holland and England were more diplomatic in their response. The plan, while insufficient, did allow the Kyoto talks to move forward, they said.

Clinton also called for $5 billion in tax cuts and spending over five years to develop and commercialise energy efficient technologies and "lower carbon energy sources," a category that presumably includes renewables.

Incentives were promised for companies to cut emissions before 2008. On electricity restructuring, Clinton suggested pursuing a "bold plan" to deliver a significant down payment on emissions reductions while saving consumers billions. The plan called for "appropriate market based provisions" to produce and use electricity with less pollution, for example by promoting renewable energy. The Administration also said it would pursue bilateral dialogues with key developing countries to promote clean energy.

Clinton's plan was quickly denounced. "The plan É fails to protect our children," said Carl Pope of the Sierra Club. "The United States is the only country dragging its feet," said Phil Clapp of the Environmental Information Centre. Of the major US green groups, the only one supporting Clinton was the Environmental Defence Fund. "For the first time there is a good chance of a constructive outcome at Kyoto," said Michael Oppenheimer, senior scientist at the fund. One of the major defects of the plan is that it is not aggressive enough in the longer term. "But the early reductions are extremely important, because they could get US emissions under control. Emissions are basically exploding at this point," he said.

Industry leaders thought the plan went too far. "It's a flawed plan and it won't work," said William O'Keefe of the Global Climate Coalition, an industry group. He warned the plan would mean an energy tax and higher fuel prices. Clinton's announcement came just two days after a report from the US Department of Energy registering the largest ever jump in carbon pollution in America last year -- 3.4% in a single year compared with an 8% increase over the previous six years. The jump was attributed to the robust US economy and higher natural gas prices, which meant more dirty fuels were used.

Stark contrast

In contrast to the US plant, the EU's negotiating position for Kyoto is a 15% cut in emissions by 2010 and, on the same day as Clinton's announcement, the "Group of 77" developing countries and China called for rich countries to cut their emissions by 7.5% before 1990 levels by 2005, 15% by 2010 and 35% by 2020.

Randy Swisher of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) said Clinton's proposal "points the United States in the right direction." He added: "However, as the President continues to build a consensus for action, the plan should be strengthened to provide more emissions reduction at a faster rate through additional clean energy incentives." He said that AWEA hopes that, once details of the pan are finalised, it will include a ten year extension of the production tax credit. In conjunction with other policies, AWEA says this would enable ten million homes to be powered with wind and the creation of thousands of jobs.

Swisher lauded the linking of electricity restructuring with climate change. In doing to, he said the Clinton Administration is pointing the country towards a cleaner future. Implementation of the Renewables Portfolio Standard supported by AWEA would allow installation of 30,000 MW of wind capacity by 2010, compared with today's 1700 MW, contributing more than 18% of the CO2 emissions reductions needed from power plants, said Swisher.

The only wind company mentioned in the 20 page Clinton document was bankrupt Kenetech Windpower, cited as an example of US experience in the market based innovative strategy of Joint Implementation.