Chicago Tribune: Shortly after taking office, President Bush rejected the 1997 Kyoto Protocol for reducing greenhouse gases. It was the right decision. Left unanswered, however, was the question: If not Kyoto, then what?
Last week, the president pretended to answer that question by presenting his own emissions-control strategy. Those waiting for a credible alternative are still waiting.
The United States is the world's biggest polluter, and any world response to the problem of global warming requires U.S. involvement. The Kyoto agreement, however, mandated drastic cutbacks in emissions here while up-and-coming polluters in the developing world, such as China and India, were largely exempted. For the United States, Kyoto was an exorbitantly costly proposition that might have put us at a competitive disadvantage.
Enter Bush's Kyoto-lite plan, calling for reductions of sulfur dioxide (chief ingredient of acid rain), nitrogen oxide (smog) and mercury (pollutant of streams and lakes), mostly through voluntary measures, $4.5 billion in tax incentives and the trading of "pollution credits."
Tax incentives might well provide some impetus to curb pollution. A national system for trading "pollution credits"-- those industries that emitted less pollutants than allowed would get credits for the difference, which they could then sell to those which exceeded the established limits -- would give industry the flexibility to reduce emissions nationwide most economically.
But the Bush plan lacks teeth because so much of it is based on voluntary cooperation. Even the reporting of emissions would be voluntary. Most significantly, the Bush plan does not set up a clear strategy for reducing carbon dioxide, the main ingredient of greenhouse gases.
Greehouse gas index: Instead it proposes to gauge progress through a "greenhouse gas intensity" index. The index is the result of dividing greenhouse gas emissions by the rate of growth of the gross domestic product. The administration foresees intensity declining 18 percent over the next decade.
The index, however, sounds like a smoke-and-mirrors fix not likely to produce any net reductions in greenhouse gases. If the GDP declined, allowable levels of emissions would rise. But emissions also are likely to rise if the economy grows. As the service and high-tech sector economy keeps growing, the formula would yield "reduced" levels of intensity, when in fact the net amount of greenhouse gases being spewed into the air would remain the same or even increase.
According to data from the federal Energy Information Administration, emissions "intensity" would have decreased by 17.4 percent during the 1990s, but the net amount of pollutants in the air increased by 14 percent.
Reducing carbon dioxide is expensive but it must be done. And the government owes it to the utilities and other industries to come up with consistent clean-air standards that include all four major pollutants and can be factored into long-range capital expenditures.
President Bush is right to argue that the United States can't expect to achieve environmental improvements if it hobbles the economic growth needed to pay for them. The Kyoto protocol guaranteed the latter by requiring unrealistic cutbacks in U.S. emissions.

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