WASHINGTON — Electric utilities and 12 other industries that are major emitters of greenhouse gases responded Wednesday to President Bush's climate change initiative by making a commitment to limiting the increase of their emissions.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the declarations represent each industry's fair share in meeting the president's goal of an 18% decrease in the so-called greenhouse gas intensity by 2012.
"Our preliminary analysis of the commitments we have in hand indicate they will yield their sector's share of the president's 18% goal," Abraham said.
These commitments serve as an important measure of the effectiveness of the president's voluntary approach to tackling the problem of global warming.
"There is a perception by many that if environmental programs are not mandated they are not real," said Christie Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. "But I'm here to tell you that these voluntary programs are very real and are getting very real results."
Bush rejected mandatory requirements to address global warming, arguing that they would stifle economic growth. He reversed a campaign pledge to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants. He also pulled the United States out of international negotiations to reduce greenhouse gases under the Kyoto Treaty, which produced commitments from most developed countries to reduce emissions.
The industries' announcements Wednesday were among the first tangible results of his voluntary strategy.
Environmental groups and some global warming experts criticized the industries' commitments as public relations stunts that offer no hope of curbing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
"The president's goal is just business as usual, and some of today's pledges fall short even of that," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, which works with the private sector to reduce emissions.
The pledge that attracted the most attention was from the electric utilities industry, which is responsible for 40% of the nation's emissions of carbon dioxide, the most plentiful greenhouse gas emitted though human activity.
The Edison Electric Institute and six other power sector groups that together represent all U.S. electricity generation pledged to reduce their carbon intensity -- the quantity of their emissions relative to the amount of electricity sold -- by 3% to 5% over this decade.
The Energy Information Agency's 2003 Annual Energy Outlook had projected that the industry would reduce its emissions relative to electricity sold by 7% over that time, without the president's program.
Even top Energy Department officials seemed to have misunderstood what the electric utilities had pledged. Abraham said the industries' pledges were "intended to be in addition to what could have happened under the normal business course."
But the president of the Edison Electric Institute, Thomas Kuhn, said the commitment was for an "absolute" decrease of 3% to 5% in his industry's emissions per unit of energy sold over the decade.
"That would not be our understanding," said Energy Undersecretary Bob Cart. "The electric power sector needs to do more than 3% to 5% absolute over this time period."
Environmental activists said the mix-up suggested that the administration's approach had failed.
"The whole idea of this event was to try and show there was something serious going on, to back up the voluntary approach and show why mandatory controls weren't needed," said David Doniger, policy director of the climate center of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group. "Instead it's turning into further proof that voluntary improvements don't work."
The bottom line, environmentalists said, is that Bush's policy envisions a 13% increase in greenhouse gas emissions by 2012, which the administration does not dispute.
"You can't protect the environment by increasing pollution," said Jeremy Symons, who manages the National Wildlife Federation's climate change programs.
Bill Fang, Edison Electric Institute's climate issue director, said the voluntary program reflects the opinion that immediate, drastic steps are not necessary. If the growth of emissions is slowed over the next decade, technological advancements will emerge that will make it easier to cut emissions later, he said.
"If you think you have some time, and we believe we have some time, then this kind of program makes sense," Fang said. "This is a program to help buy time."
Industry groups said living up to their pledges would not be easy.
The power sector said it would have to increase nuclear and renewable sources of energy, improve technologies for burning coal and plant trees to help offset increasing emissions.
The American Forest and Paper Assn. said its members, who produce paper and other wood products, would boost paper recycling to 50% as part of their pledge for a 12% reduction of greenhouse gas intensity by 2012.