Rupert Cornwell

Bush Makes Empty Climate Change Pledge

In a last ditch -- and almost certainly unsuccessful -- bid to fend off international criticism of his climate change policies, President George Bush has called on 15 of the world's biggest polluting countries, including China and India, to agree on a target for reducing greenhouse gases by the end of 2008.

But the White House once again rejected a global carbon-trading programme permitting countries to buy and sell carbon credits. US officials also ruled out specific energy efficiency targets, arguing that "one size fits all" standards would be unworkable.

Nor did it embrace the German suggestion of a "two-degree" strategy, whereby the rise in world temperatures would be slowed to 2C this century by cutting emissions.

Experts say that in practice, that target would require a global halving of 1990 emission levels by 2050. A leaked memo last week spoke of Washington's "fundamental opposition" to such a scheme.

Instead, in an important address here a week before the G8 summit in Germany at which global warming will top the agenda, Mr Bush urged a series of meetings starting this autumn. These would bring together countries identified as the main emitters of the gasses blamed for global warming. They would include the US, China and India (all of them either opposed to, or exempted from, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol) as well as Japan and major European countries. Washington refused to ratify Kyoto ostensibly because the absence of big emerging economies such as China and India made it meaningless.

A decade later, it is again at odds with the EU. And Mr Bush's vague promise yesterday to work with other countries for "a new framework for greenhouse gas emissions for when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012" will do nothing to satisfy critics.

The American plan places its faith in free-market mechanisms and technology to solve the problem. "The world is on the verge of great breakthroughs that will help us become better stewards of the environment," Mr Bush declared. Under his scheme, individual countries would establish "midterm management targets and programmes that reflect their own mix of energy sources and future energy needs".

But for critics, Mr Bush's proposals were simply more of the same -- a transparent attempt to create the impression that the US was not dragging its heels.

The speech was proof that the administration had a "do-nothing" approach to global warming, said Daniel Weiss, the climate strategy director at the Centre for American Progress think-tank. The European and Japanese pleas for action "add to the voices of corporations such as Dow, Shell, General Electric and General Motors". But they were falling on deaf ears, he added.

But Tony Blair hailed Mr Bush's remarks as a step forward. "Without America and China, the rest of the world frankly can agree whatever it wants but it's not going to have the effect of improving the environment," the Prime Minister said during his visit to South Africa. "The important thing is, for the first time America is saying it wants to be part of a global deal."

In fact, the White House has become marginalised in the domestic debate over climate change. The Democrat-controlled Congress is pressing ahead with legislation, while the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, last week led a congressional delegation for talks in Germany on the issue.

And what he really meant ...

From the President's speech in Washington yesterday:

'In recent years, science has deepened our understanding of climate change and opened new possibilities for confronting it.'

Translation: In recent years, my refusal to acknowledge the reality and seriousness of global warming has turned me into a laughing-stock and contributed to my record low poll ratings. So now I have to look interested.

'The United States takes this issue seriously.'

Translation: Al Gore takes this issue seriously, his movie was a hit, and it's causing me no end of grief.

'By the end of next year, America and other nations will set a long-term goal for reducing greenhouse gases.'

Translation: By the end of next year, I'll be weeks away from the end of my presidency and this can be someone else's problem.

'To develop this goal, the United States will convene a series of meetings of nations that produce the most greenhouse gasses, including nations with rapidly growing economies such as India and China.'

Translation: We will look as busy as we can without doing anything.

'The new initiative I am outlining today will contribute to the important dialogue that will take place in Germany.'

Translation: The new initiative will put the brakes on the much more robust proposal the Germans are putting forward. As long as dialogue continues, we won't have to abide by any decisions

'Each country would establish midterm management targets and programmes that reflect their own mix of energy sources and needs.'

Translation: Nobody will be obliged to take any painful decisions.

'Over the past six years, my administration has spent, along with the Congress, more than $12bn in research on clean energy technology.'

Translation: But we've spent a lot more mollycoddling the oil and gas industries. We're the world's leader in figuring out ways to power our economy while looking after the environment.