WASHINGTON — President Bush on Wednesday proposed a new target for stopping the growth of U.S. emissions tied to global warming by 2025, but environmental groups were quick to criticize the stand as merely undercutting stronger proposals in Congress and by several states.
The president called developing new technolgies the key to curbing greenhouse gas emissions over the long term, and added that coal-fired power plants could do their part by slowing emissions' growth a bit faster than the 2025 goal.
"To reach our 2025 goal, we will need to more rapidly slow the growth of power sector greenhouse gas emissions so that they peak within 10 to 15 years, and decline thereafter," Bush said in a speech made at the White House.
"By doing so, we will reduce emission levels in the power sector well below where they were projected to be when we first announced our climate strategy in 2002," Bush said. "There are a number of ways to achieve these reductions, but all responsible approaches depend on accelerating the development and deployment of new technologies."
Bush's cautious gambit falls far short of European goals and comes as Congress is about to consider more ambitious targets and ahead of international climate change negotiations in Paris.
The Sierra Club was among the activists to challenge Bush, noting that some scientists feel global emissions should be cut by 20 percent by 2020. "Merely halting the growth of emissions is grossly insufficient," it stated.
"The president is throwing a Hail Mary to polluters in a last-ditch effort to stave off any meaningful action on global warming," said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope.
Bush's new goal for curtailing greenhouse gas emissions is an attempt to short-circuit what White House aides call a potential regulatory "train wreck" if Congress doesn't act on climate change. The president's speech is aimed at shaping the debate on global warming in favor of solving the problem while avoiding heavy costs to industry and the economy.
The Bush administration has been a staunch opponent of a mandatory so-called "cap-and-trade" approach to reducing greenhouse gases. While it has backed some mandatory programs, it has preferred largely voluntary measures to broadly address global warming.
In his speech, however, the president did not slam the door on discussing market-based approaches to stem the rise in greenhouse gas emissions.
"We aren't necessarily against cap-and-trade proposals," White House press secretary Dana Perino said earlier this week. But she added quickly, "What we've seen so far from Congress is not something that we can support."
The president remains opposed to a Senate bill that would require mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions, calling that proposal unrealistic and economically harmful, Perino said.
Bush spoke forcefully about concerns he has over a possible rush to address the Earth's warming through a hodgepodge of regulations under existing federal laws such as the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Senior White House officials last week told a group of conservative Republican lawmakers in a private meeting that the administration wants Congress to act on climate change to avoid regulating carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping — or greenhouse — gases under existing laws.
Perino says the administration is concerned about a potential regulatory "train wreck" as a result of climate-related court rulings.
"Recent court decisions hold the very real prospect that the federal government will regulate greenhouse gas emissions with or without a new law being passed," Perino said. "To us, having unelected bureaucrats regulating greenhouse gases at the direction of unelected judges is not the proper way to address the issue."
Several of the conservative GOP lawmakers who heard the White House presentation last week said they viewed it as a move toward endorsing a limited type of "cap-and-trade" emissions reduction proposal, targeting power plants, and a reversal of long-standing administration climate policy.
The new White House climate initiative comes as Bush appears, in the view of congressional Democrats and environmentalists, as increasingly irrelevant in the climate debate both on the domestic and international stage.
All three presidential candidates — Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain — favor a more aggressive program on climate change than does Bush, all supporting mandatory limits on greenhouse gases.
Senate Democratic leaders plan to begin debate in June on legislation that would cap greenhouse gases and allow polluters to ease some of the cost by buying emissions credits. This cap-and-trade approach is aimed at cutting the emissions by 70 percent by mid-century. The House also is moving toward considering a cap-and-trade proposal. And many industry lobbyists have become resigned to some type of cap-and-trade proposal moving forward, if not this year probably next, and are trying to find ways to limit the damage.
"The key is whether the president supports a mandatory cap on emissions," said Tony Kreindler, a climate specialist at the advocacy group Environmental Defense. "You never achieve any real reductions in pollution without legal limits. That's what we're going to be looking for."
Supreme Court orders
Meanwhile, many environmentalists maintain that the congressional debate may be overtaken by the courts — the same prospect the White House is fretting over.
The Environmental Protection Agency already is under orders from the Supreme Court to determine whether carbon dioxide is endangering public health or welfare. If so, the court said, the EPA must regulate CO2 emissions.
Carbon dioxide is the leading greenhouse gas, so named because its accumulation in the atmosphere can help trap heat from the sun, causing potentially dangerous warming of the planet.
At the same time, the Interior Department has been told by another court to decide whether the polar bear should be brought under the protection of the Endangered Species Act because of disappearing sea ice — a phenomenon blamed by scientists on global warming.
While senior Bush administration officials were traveling to Paris this week to join a discussion with other Group of 8 countries about what actions to take on global warming, many foreign negotiators involved in such talks are increasingly looking ahead, knowing that it's likely the next administration will take more decisive steps on U.S. climate policy.
The United States and other countries agreed at a meeting in December in Bali, Indonesia, to work to set firm targets for reducing greenhouse emissions by the end of 2009, as a follow-up to the Kyoto reduction targets that expire in 2012.
The United States never ratified the Kyoto treat and the Bush administration wants to avoid a new, Kyoto-like accord.
The European Union maintains that worldwide emissions must peak within 10 to 15 years from now. By 2050, global emissions must be reduced by 50 percent compared to 1990 levels, and rich countries need to cut these emissions by 60 to 80 percent, the alliance believes.
The U.N. climate panel estimates that if carbon emissions peak by 2015, global temperature would increase above pre-industrial levels by up to 4.3 degrees F.
Peaking globally by 2030 would lead to temperature increase of up to 5.7 degrees F, the panel said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.