The Sky is Not Falling

Considering the U.S. decision to pull out of the Kyoto protocols, Washington's continued drive to drill for oil in the Alaskan wilderness and inter-agency fighting over clean air rules, many believe it's a dark moment for environmental preservation.

But all is not dire. Some promising environmental initiatives are currently in play, or have recently been proposed. Even Bush's recently announced proposal on greenhouse gases has more merit than meets the eye.

Bush's fiscal budget for 2003 would dedicate $4.5 billion to climate change programs, a $700 million increase over this year's allotment. The proposal also provides for a five-year, $4.6 billion tax credit program for individuals and businesses to promote the use and production of renewable energy sources. Overall, Bush's plan could result in lowering toxic emissions from an estimated 183 metric tons per million dollars of GDP in 2002 to 151 metric tons in 2012, through a system of financial incentives and tax rebates designed to encourage voluntary reduction of toxic emissions.

European analysts have expressed some of the most measured reactions to Bush's proposal. Thomas Legge, a climate specialist at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, believes that Bush's ideas might inspire businesses to make green investments.

And while the Bush administration continues to resist fighting pollution through regulating business, in Europe it's a different story.

On November 15, 2001, the European Union Parliament, acting against opposition from the continent's chemical industry, adopted directives mandating the replacement of all hazardous chemicals by 2020. Most of these chemicals are petroleum-based solvents and products, which will be substituted by safer water- and plant-based alternatives. In addition, the new E.U. regulations mandate that member governments lower the safety threshold for human exposure to toxic chemicals, and require labeling of products containing toxic chemicals.

The Clinton administration, in its final months, had debated adopting similar standards for many of the chemicals now injected into American water and air. The Bush administration has shelved the matter, preferring to promote a strategy of self-enforcement within private industry and the public sector.

With or without leadership from Washington, several states and private corporations in America have been moving forward with promising environmental initiatives. Some are listed in "Why Poison Ourselves? A Precautionary Approach to Hazardous Chemicals," a report released by the Washington, D.C.-based environmental research organization World Watch Institute. In 1989, for example, the Massachusetts legislature approved a law requiring the state's manufacturing industry to re-evaluate their use of toxic chemicals and come up with a list of viable and safer alternatives. Results have been encouraging: 80 percent of the state's manufacturing industries have adopted cleaner production practices, resulting in a 24 percent reduction of the sector's total toxic output.

There are other promising U.S. developments. IBM and Motorola have drastically reduced use of chlorinated solvents, in favor of water-based ones. The American Hospital Association has declared its willingness to phase out all wastes containing mercury by the year 2005. In order to protect children from exposure to harmful vapors, the toy industry has discontinued the use of PVC to produce plastics used in their products.

According to World Watch, in the United States today, millions of pounds of paints, plastics and detergents are manufactured utilizing plant-based organic materials, rather than toxic chemicals. Today more than 30 percent of the U.S. market for adhesives, surface cleaning agents and plastic additives is produced with biologically safe elements. Even Dow Chemical and Cargill, two of the world's largest chemical and agricultural conglomerates, have joined forces to build the world's first plastic manufacturing plant that will utilize corn sugar, rather than petroleum, to produce its goods.

Progress in the industrial arena is being matched by progress on the public health front. In May 1999 the World Health Assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organization, empowered a commission to establish an international treaty to control the global rise of tobacco and tobacco products in the new century. Known as the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCOT), the treaty, approved by the 191 member countries of the World Health Assembly in mid-February 2002, bans tobacco advertising and promotion and seeks to protect people -- especially children -- from exposure to tobacco smoke in public places. It also requires full disclosure of tobacco product ingredients, bans duty-free sales and imports of tobacco products and eliminates subsidies and government support for tobacco products in the 191 ratifying countries.

If all long journeys begin with a single step, dismissing any one of these environmental initiatives as insufficient in itself could be unwise. Considered together, they suggest that -- with continued public and governmental attention -- industries will adopt self-regulating mechanisms that could lead toward a cleaner environment.

Pacific News Service contributor Paolo Pontoniere ( is a freelance writer and correspondent for Italy's leading news weekly, L'Espresso.


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