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Bill to Reduce Greenhouse Gases Fuels Policy Debate - 2003-06-04

When United States Senators Joseph Lieberman and John McCain introduced a bill earlier this year to limit the emission of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, they infused new energy into the debate over U.S. policy on global warming.

The legislation would set a nationwide cap on pollution from factories, businesses, power plants and gas burning vehicles, which collectively produce 80 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the bill is controversial because it sets mandatory emission-reduction goals that the Bush administration hopes to reach through voluntary means.

The United States is responsible for 25 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, which increased by 12 percent between 1990 and 2001. They are expected to jump another 12 percent within the next decade.

Halting this trend through mandatory emission curbs is the focus of two new reports from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, an independent Washington-based research group.

Co-author Denny Ellerman says the mandatory approach to curbing greenhouse gas emissions would build on the success that federal and state agencies have enjoyed over the last 40 years with a variety of other pollution-control programs. "These programs begin in the 1970s with the early EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] trading programs," he explained. "They continue in the 1980s with the lead-in-gasoline program and into the 1990s when the last four were placed into effect."

Mr. Ellerman referred to recent American programs to reduce acid rain, to control pollutants in the Los Angeles Basin, to put caps on industrial emissions and to launch so-called emission trading schemes that have helped spread the cost of reducing pollution.

The Pew Center reports consider some concrete ideas for bringing climate-changing pollution under control. One is a so-called "cap and trade program," which sets an overall limit on greenhouse gas emissions but allows companies to trade among themselves to reach emission reduction goals.

The reports also consider the feasibility of greenhouse gas taxes, and programs that would combine emission curbs with mandatory energy-efficiency standards for consumer products and automobiles.

While the Bush administration rejected the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement on Climate Change, support for such initiatives is growing on Capitol Hill, said Eileen Claussen, director of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, which produced the reports.

"Whether they [the measures] are sort of small time mandatory - like reporting [emissions] - or big-time mandatory - like the McCain-Lieberman Cap and Trade Economy Wide Trade Bill - it is my sense that we are not at a point where the Congress is about to pass some mandatory program," she said. "But there is actually a lot more interest in that in the Congress than certainly in the Administration than many of us expected to see a couple of years ago. [That is] spurred on at least in part by the activity at the state level, increasingly sound science and the good analysis and finally the fact that companies are finding that they can make reductions at affordable prices."

Marlow Lewis, an analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says the administration withdrew from Kyoto because the treaty was bad for the American economy and bad for the environment, too.

"The reason why the United States has not gone down this path is that these mandatory reduction schemes, of which the Kyoto Protocol is the best known, are all economic pain for no environmental gain," said Mr. Lewis. "The Energy Information Administration, for example, estimates that implementing the Kyoto Protocol here in the United States could cost as much as $283 billion a year. Now what would we actually get for that in terms of climate modification? Nothing measurable. It is that horrible cost-benefit ratio I think that dooms the Kyoto Protocol and similar approaches and makes them politically unacceptable."

But Eileen Clausen of the Pew Center countered that the Bush administration's goal of economic growth is going to result in increased emissions. "We are taking about objectives that result in decreased emissions. Because if you want to solve this [global warming] problem that is what you have to do."

Ms. Claussen predicts the new reports from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change will trigger important new discussions about American policies on the issue.

"I think that we are at the very beginning of a debate on how to do this. That is why we thought that putting out reports at this time would be especially useful" she said. "What we need to see is the beginning of a discussion. And I think that this bill and that Senator McCain is clearly going to push it will mean that we at least are going to start the bill in the United States."

But Marlow Lewis with the Competitive Enterprise Institute warns that the McCain-Lieberman legislation mandating greenhouse-gas reductions in the United States must survive a road dotted with political lanmines

"Depending on what happens in the next election cycle, legislation like this might pick up steam or lose steam," he predicted. "There is a lot of political posturing and game playing that goes on in these kinds of debates and certainly John McCain and Joe Lieberman are U.S. presidential aspirants, and they see this [proposed legislation] as a stick to beat up their main competitor."

John McCain is a Republican, Joseph Lieberman a Democrat. Both Republican John McCain and Democrat Joe Lieberman insist that the United States must address global warming through mandatory emissions reductions. Whether that position can win votes against George Bush in the 2004 presidential election is a risk they are willing to take.