WASHINGTON — President Bush said Wednesday that the U.S. should halt the rise in its greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, as he sought to set boundaries for global warming initiatives under consideration by Congress and major industrialized nations.
But the calendar leaves him little time and, critics said, little prospect of influencing the debate. All of the presidential candidates who want to replace him favor stronger action.
To reach his goal, the president said, the U.S. would need to slow the growth in emissions from power plants in the next 10 to 15 years and then begin to reverse that growth.
As he has in the past, Bush put greatest reliance on using technological advances to reduce the release of carbon dioxide and other gases, which are released when coal, petroleum products and other fossil fuels are burned, and which are widely blamed for rising global temperatures. He gave no support to calls for mandatory limits on emissions.
A confluence of three things has pushed Bush to move haltingly toward a more aggressive global warming policy: The 17 major industrialized nations that give off 85% of greenhouse gases are meeting in Paris to develop a new international attack on global warming, pressure is growing to find legislative remedies, and courts are pushing government agencies to act under the requirements of several environmental laws.
"The train is moving toward legislation that will control heat-trapping bases in the U.S.," said David Sandalow, who led the Clinton administration efforts to negotiate international climate change agreements. But, he added, Bush was offering "a weak goal in place of strong legislation."
To one degree or another, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and the two candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, favor setting limits on emissions.
The most widely discussed system would cap emissions and allow companies and others that emit gases below the limits to sell credits to those who are unable to meet the targets.
A bill sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.) would seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury to 66% below 2005 levels, while allowing companies to trade pollution rights. House leaders also are drafting legislation.
Bush intentionally made no mention of the so-called cap-and-trade system, which has been used for more than a decade in the fight against acid rain. He has opposed the program in the past, but a senior White House official said he was not ruling it in or out.
Proponents took heart because he did not express opposition in his speech in the White House Rose Garden. Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at the Harvard Kennedy School, said any step Bush took toward addressing the issue was "a step in the right direction for this administration," which he said had been "disinterested and disengaged."
But Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that nothing Bush said would lead Republican opponents of a cap-and-trade program to ease their opposition. "It ain't gonna happen," he said.
But with McCain, Clinton and Obama favoring stronger action than Bush, "it seems almost certain that any new climate legislation will be signed by a future president," said Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch.
Noting that "Bush will be gone in a matter of months," Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, dismissed the president's comments as the "last whimper from an increasingly irrelevant president."
The president said that however the eventual reductions were achieved, "all responsible approaches depend on accelerating the development and deployment of new technologies."
He took aim at court decisions on greenhouse gases that he said were based on environmental laws passed 30 years ago to protect endangered species or air quality. The Supreme Court last year said the federal government had the authority, under the Clean Air Act, to reduce such emissions.
James Connaughton, the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, a White House agency, said broad environmental laws could force the federal government to make decisions about issues like school expansion because such work could lead to greater gas emissions.
Such court rulings, Bush said, "would make the federal government act like a local planning and zoning board."