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Jonathan Lash Responds to the 2007 "State of the Union" Address

On Tuesday, President George W. Bush delivered his annual State of the Union address to the nation. The President spent three minutes and thirty-seven seconds on energy policy. He mentioned climate change once.

It was good to hear the President say that global climate change is a "serious challenge." At last.

A serious challenge deserves a serious response. We did not get one.

The President focused on "energy independence," proposing measures that could help reduce global warming pollution, but probably won't: I'll come back to this. To put the measures in perspective: even if everything he proposed works out in the best possible way, the President's plan would make only modest reductions in emissions from road transportation. Road transportation accounts for only 22 percent of total U.S. global warming emissions. He made no proposal to address the other 78 percent.

Ironically, the day before the President's speech, I was privileged to join three of my environmental colleagues and the CEOs of Alcoa, Caterpillar, Duke Energy, DuPont, Florida Power and Light, GE, Lehman Brothers, PG&E and PNM Resources at the National Press Club to announce our joint call to action on climate change, a set of policies that would achieve 60-80 percent reductions in all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It was a remarkable moment: a set of corporate leaders showing real vision and courage, and actually asking to be regulated. I wish we had seen the same kind of vision from the President the following day.

The President set a goal of a 20 percent reduction in projected U.S. gasoline use by 2017. Since U.S. gasoline consumption is projected to grow by almost 20 percent by then, achieving the goal would mean only a small increase instead of a big increase. Better than nothing? Well, maybe, but wait, the President's proposal includes a "safety valve" so that if grain or gasoline prices go up too much (it's not clear how much), the government can relax its goal. Would you invest in new technology based on that promise?

From a climate perspective, the proposal looks even worse when you read carefully. His speech called for increasing "the supply of alternative fuels," not "renewable fuels." Alternative fuels could include technologies like coal liquefaction, which might decrease our dependence on foreign oil but would roughly double our CO2 emissions. It is true that the CO2 from the energy-intensive process of making coal into a liquid may one day be captured and injected underground, but the government would have to require and subsidize that process, which the President did not propose.

The President's best idea was to tighten automobile fuel economy standards: one of the fastest and cheapest ways to reduce global warming pollution and promote energy independence. It is something that we should have done years ago. It would have helped U.S. auto companies who are losing the technology, fuel economy, and market share competition with Toyota and Honda. Just yesterday, Ford Motor Company announced that 2006 was its worst year ever -- it lost almost $2,000 for every car and truck it sold -- largely due to slumping demand for gas-guzzling SUVs. Currently, overall U.S. fuel economy is about 26 miles per gallon (mpg). China's is 35 mpg. Japan's is 45 mpg. The President proposed to increase U.S. fuel efficiency standards to 35 mpg in 10 years. My Prius does better than that today. Isn't climate and energy independence important enough to push manufacturers to do better than that in a decade?

That brings me back to the CEOs' recommendations and the reasons why they are calling for action. They want a policy road map that helps them decide how to invest in technologies to compete in tomorrow's markets. Tomorrow's markets will be carbon constrained because we can't go on spewing more and more CO2 into the atmosphere.

The President has been touting American ingenuity. Yet his proposal is too narrow to build a safe climate in unison with a sound economic future. The longer we wait to reduce emissions, the harder and more expensive it gets to stop global warming, and the harder it is for U.S. industry to compete to provide solutions. We need a plan with vision to promote actions that will spur economic growth in the future and take real steps to combat climate change. It is the greatest crisis of this era.

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