Bush Administration Calls for Emissions Cuts

by Bill Chameides | July 9th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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For the Bush administration, accepting scientific realities has been a painfully slow process. For years, President Bush seeded his speeches on climate with claims of uncertainties despite an overwhelming scientific consensus regarding the serious threat of global warming. His administration manipulated reports and coerced government scientists to marginalize the issue. Then the president agreed that global warming was an issue but refused to endorse mandatory targets. On Tuesday, the president went on record in favor of a specific target for reducing carbon emissions. This is a major step, but is it too little, too late? The devil is definitely in the details.

Is the G8 Declaration Ambitious Enough?

The call by the Group of 8 — the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Canada, and Russia — for a 50 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is indeed ambitious, but it is not clear if it is ambitious enough. The communiqué does not specify if the 50 percent cut is relative to 1990 emission levels (the metric used under the Kyoto regime) or to current ones. This makes a big difference as emissions have grown significantly over the past 18 years.

In the United States energy-related emissions have grown by about 20 percent since 1990, from 5.0 to 6.0 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year; globally, energy-related emissions have grown by almost 30 percent from 21.2 to 26.9 (in 2004) billion metric tons.

If the cut is relative to current emissions, it is unlikely that it will be adequate to avoid the more dangerous consequences of global warming. Most scientists agree that nations with developed economies (such as the G8 members) will need to cut emissions relative to today by about 70–80 percent by 2050. If the proposed G8 cut is relative to 1990, then it will indeed get us in the ballpark.

G8 Calls for Participation of ‘All Major Economies’

One of the more controversial aspects of the G8 statement is the requirement for the participation of “all major economies,” including those of the developing world such as China and India. While some in the environmental community have objected to this aspect of the G8 statement, I do not.

A significant flaw of Kyoto in my view was a failure to require significant participation of developing countries. The simple reality is that just as U.S. participation is essential in a global treaty designed to adequately slow global warming, so is the participation of nations like China and India. So why not recognize that reality and get started on a comprehensive approach as soon as possible?

It’s a Start, but Many Questions Remain

Of course all of this leaves some major questions to be answered. Interim targets are a major issue. The G8 statement identified the final 2050 target, but the path to get there is not specified and this is critical because it determines the total amount of greenhouse gas pollution that is emitted between now and 2050. Interim targets are needed to define the pathway we take to the 2050 target.


Another issue will be the relative burdens assumed by the developed and developing countries. Most agree that the developed economies should be required to meet more stringent targets than the developing economies. The G8 communiqué does not specify how much more stringent, or what metrics will used to determine how much more stringent.

These questions will have to be addressed in the next couple of years as the global community works out the details for a new framework for dealing with global warming. The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. The next global climate talks slated for December in Poland might hold some answers. After last year’s G8 meeting when the Bush administration refused to agree to binding emissions cuts, the climate talks in Bali were almost anticlimactic. This year’s conference to be held in Poznań, Poland is critical to mapping out the post-Kyoto path. Perhaps then it will become clearer whether this shift in U.S. position has any teeth. At any rate, it will be the next U.S. president, not President Bush, who would play the major role in that process.

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