EARTH DAY: Clinton says US could set global environmental example

President Clinton has marked the 30th Earth Day by urging the US to set a pro-environmental example to the rest of the world. Clinton also marked the occasion by announcing plans to reduce fuel use in the Federal Government's vehicle fleets and to offer federal workers incentives to use public transportation.

In a televised interview with Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio (see related story), President Clinton said that the US could be at the forefront of a ’21st century energy revolution.’ “We should become a role model because, just as we’ve led the world in information technology with the development of the Internet and digital technology of all kinds, we have the technology here. So if we take this on the way we did the Industrial Revolution, the way we did the information technology revolution, there will be an energy revolution in the 21st century that will save the planet and actually increase health and wealth. I predict to you that will be one of the great stories of the 21st century, that there was a dramatic revolution in work caused by a change in the source of energy, in the level of conservation, and in the availability of technologies that just weren’t there before.”

More immediately, Clinton plans to require the federal government to reduce fuel use in its vehicle fleets by 20% over the next five years. He will also offer federal government workers incentives to use public transport.

The first of two Executive Orders on federal transport requires federal agencies to push through a 20% reduction in 1999 levels of fuel use by 2005. This is intended to reduce the amount of fuel used by federal vehicles by 45 million gallons (170 million litres) each year.

The second Executive Order will give federal employees up to $65 pre-tax dollars per month on public transport. In the Washington metropolitan area, all federal agencies will be required to help subsidise public transportation costs for their workers. And three agencies – the Departments of Energy and Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency – will offer the subsidies across the US. The Department of Transportation estimates that 75,000-100,000 additional Federal employees in the National Capital Region will take advantage of the transit/vanpool scheme, reducing air pollution costs by $70 million-$95 million.

The interview and executive orders were part of a PR offensive by the Clinton/ Gore administration to claim the environmental high ground during the highly publicised Earth Day celebrations.

Presidential candidate Al Gore used the occasion to launch his ‘vision’ of the coming ‘Environment Decade.’ “We have to make the next ten years the Environment Decade, in America and around the world,” Gore said. “We have to stand against the apologists for pollution – those who believe in the old politics of environmental irresponsibility.”

Gore’s vision for the Environment Decade includes plans for the protection of forests and wilderness areas, plans to reduce urban sprawl and to improve the quality of life in urban areas, increased investment in conservation, renewable energy and international steps to reverse global warming.

Gore also outlined an approach for working with the US power stations to cut air pollution (see related story). He called for setting enforceable performance goals while allowing industry flexibility in meeting them. Gore also called for the use of market-based approaches, like emissions trading, to help utility companies improve their efficiency.

Clinton’s interview with DiCaprio not only gave the President a chance to make valuable Tinseltown contacts, but also to set out the administration’s environmental agenda for the general public.

Taking the line that climate change is no longer a controversial topic among scientists and is “one of the two or three major issues facing the world over the next 30 years”, Clinton told DiCaprio that the way forward is for ordinary US citizens, smaller businesses and government to promote energy conservation and alternative energy sources; for oil and coal industries to start thinking of themselves as energy companies and for car companies to help combat global warming.

Clinton argued that if action against climate change is to be successful, it is imperative that climate change becomes “a local and a personal matter.” If that were to happen, US citizens could be encouraged to get involved. He cited fuel efficiency measures at the White House as a way of lowering bills and energy use in US businesses and homes. He also pointed out that he was urging Congress to enact his climate change budget package which offers tax incentives to consumers who buy energy efficient homes, cars and appliances.

The budget package also includes increased US investment in developing clean technologies and alternative fuels. “First of all, we give significant tax breaks to consumers to buy energy-efficient products of all kinds; and we also give tax breaks for people to manufacture and develop them. And then, we spend more money on research, like the project we’ve had that the Vice President headed for new-generation vehicles, that we work with the auto companies and the auto workers union to develop more energy-efficient vehicles and to develop alternative forms of fuel, including biofuels.”

But, said Clinton, the US Government must also encourage the developing world to cut carbon dioxide emissions. “We have a big stake in working with other countries to convince them that they, too, can grow without increasing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, no matter how much we cut emissions in the United States, unless we also get China and India and the countries that have the big rain forests to work with us, we’re going to be in real trouble.”

Clinton also told DiCaprio that oil and coal companies should begin to think of themselves as energy, rather than fuel, companies. He said that in order to make resources last and so that they can develop alternative income streams, oil and coal companies should be given incentives to become energy companies. “And if you look at the record, starting with British Petroleum and its leader, some members of the oil industry are beginning to come over to support action on climate change,” Clinton said.

On the vexed question of US power companies, Clinton said rigorous clean air standards could be used to encourage them to replace their coal plants with cleaner technologies. He also said it was important to introduce tax incentives to encourage them to move to alternative energy sources. “A lot of the most enlightened utilities in America also see conservation itself as an energy source. PG&E in California, for example, but other utilities have understood that our inefficient patterns of using electricity are pressing them to use more traditional energy and emit more greenhouse gases and warm the climate. So I think what we should do is to have a system where we finance not only the conversion to alternative energy, but also looking at conservation itself as a form of energy. When you save, you do the same amount of work with less energy, and it’s like creating more energy in a totally clean way. And I think that we should be financing those things in part with tax breaks from the American government.”

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