Bush's Green goals

Iraq is a touchy topic these days, especially if you are a member of the Bush administration trying to talk to a European official. But there is an area of US-European dialogue that is more sensitive than Iraq. It is the Kyoto treaty on global warming. Even before September 11 2001, or for that matter the Bush presidency, European leaders railed about the US attitude to Kyoto. The US, they argued, was failing the world by not ratifying the treaty. It was forgoing principle, playing the priggish unilateralist and, worst of all, sacrificing the planet in the name of growth and cash.

Now, however, many Europeans are not merely hot with rage about Kyoto; they are incandescent. In June there was a little cooling when the US struck a bilateral agreement with the European Union on fuel cells. Then came both a difficult period in Iraq and a record European heatwave. Margot Wallström, the European environment commissioner, used the latter to argue for adherence to the Kyoto treaty, and she was not alone. A cautious Bushie might now decide it was better to run away from Green Europeans than run towards them.

It is all the more interesting, therefore, that Spencer Abraham, the US energy secretary, has chosen to visit Berlin this week and "reach out" to the German press and leadership on global warming policy. Mr Abraham's visit may generate sparks. Jürgen Trittin, Germany's environment minister, is a Green. And it was in Berlin, after all, that the heat this summer got so bad, it caused the city's river, the Spree, to flow backwards.

Mr Abraham however, is no eco-coward. The message of the speech he plans to deliver at the Hotel Adlon on Wednesday might be summarised as: "We are not ashamed." In particular, he seeks to challenge the notion that economic growth and the quest for profits cause our environmental problems. Rather, they offer solutions to our challenges.

The Abraham argument starts with Kyoto, which imposes emissions standards for greenhouse gases (GHG). "In order to reduce your GHG emissions [under Kyoto] you have to make impossible choices," he said in a phone conversation last week. "Choices about downsizing your economy." This, he says, is something many nations, especially developing nations, simply will not do. "I also doubt,", he says of a Kyoto premise, "that countries who have abundant supplies of fossil fuels will not use them." Instead the US must fund development of new technology to "change the game". Every Kyoto signatory will then profit from the innovation.

The administration has launched two big initiatives to that end. The first, the FreedomCar and Fuel Initiative, invests $1.7bn over five years to develop hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered vehicles and the infrastructure to support them. Mr Abraham formerly represented Detroit's Big Three carmakers as Michigan's senator and he is now acting as go-between for the carmakers and fuel companies. In November, Mr Abraham will host an international conference to talk about global standards and co-operation for the hydro-cars.

The second initiative is a $2bn clean-coal programme to increase the efficiency of fossil fuels. Its crown jewel is the FutureGen Programme, which aims to build what used to be an oxymoron: a coal-fired, pollution-free plant. The US joined other nations in creating the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum to advance the cause of cleaner coal globally.

These projects give the lie to critics of the Bush administration. They are multilateral. And they are not especially "capitalist". The public/private co-operation and standardisation elements of the FreedomCar initiative ought to horrify free-marketeers. Last, the project undermines the argument that Team Bush is the captive of oil interests. Mr Abraham points out: "The hydrogen initiative is from a president who is from the state of Big Oil, and it is being implemented by an energy secretary from a state associated with conventional internal combustion engines."

Europeans may want to remind themselves that the US first turned away from Kyoto under President Bill Clinton, not Mr Bush. And we all should question Mr Bush's motive: the administration seems to think it might be useful, in a pre-election year, to head left. Still, it is important to recognise that Mr Bush et al are pursuing goals with which many Greens would not normally quarrel.

There is, however, still a philosophical difference. Ms Wallström and many other European leaders argue that innovation and strong government controls can work together. Mr Abraham argues that there is an essential tension between the two and that you have to work backwards from a goal of strong growth to get a better environment - even if that growth has to be funded by government initiatives.

His thesis is too statist for my own taste but it may resonate with Berliners - if they have got over the heatwave. After all, the smoky legacy of the diverging policies of the two Germanies can still be tasted in the city's air. Utopian East Germany, where profits were abhorred and growth was an illusion, in the end proved to be the worse polluter, with its brown coal. And since unification, Leipzig has been teaching Wisconsin about clean coal as much as the other way round. The problem is not necessarily that the US and Europe disagree much on climate change. It is that Europe seeks a quarrel.

© Copyright 2003 Financial Times

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