WASHINGTON - The U.S. auto industry is pressing the Clinton administration to back off plans for a binding international treaty on global warming.
The industry says strict new limits on greenhouse gas emissions would shrink the nation's economy. Industry leaders also say scientific evidence is inconclusive that warming is occurring.
Last week, the administration was under intense pressure on the international stage to spell out plans to cut greenhouse gases.
For the auto industry, the stakes could not be higher, said Andrew Card, president of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association.
'There is probably no more significant issue for the industry as a whole than the global climate debate,' he said. 'Its ramifications will last for decades and it will affect production decisions, investment decisions, product decisions and lifestyle - how vehicles are used and where they are available.'
The administration favors an international treaty with legally binding targets and timetables for developed countries to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide.
It is a normally benign byproduct of the combustion of fossil fuel, but thousands of scientists have concluded its accumulation in the atmosphere is warming the planet.
The treaty is scheduled to be finalized at a conference in Kyoto, Japan, in December.
FOCUS ON U.S.
The United States, with 4 percent of the world population, emits more than 20 percent of the greenhouse gases, President Clinton said at the United Nations' Earth Summit last Thursday.
Of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, about one-third comes from the transportation sector, and of that, nearly two-thirds is spewed by cars and light trucks, according to the Sierra Club.
The environmental group blames inefficient trucks, minivans and sport-utilities for impeding progress on reducing greenhouse gases.
Vice President Al Gore, in his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, called for new taxes, based on the carbon content of fuels, to encourage consumers to choose more efficient products. He also supported higher fuel economy standards for cars and trucks. And he called for a new round of international treaties on the environment.
As the likelihood increases that he will run for president in 2000, Gore has been less visible on 'green' issues, his environmental supporters complain. But his allies in the administration, including Deputy Secretary of State Tim Wirth and Assistant Secretary of State Eileen Claussen, have been the point people on climate change.
Critics like Card worry about the administration's intentions.
'Nobody has told us what are the targets, what is the timetable. We know that that would force the U.S. to go on a very serious energy diet, but they haven't told us what kind of a diet, how it would work or what the ramifications of it would be,' he said.
Near week's end, Clinton appeared at the U.N. Earth Summit and outlined some initial steps the United States will take to slow growth of the emissions - including $1 billion in aid for developing nations to improve energy efficiency.
He did not, however, provide details of the administration proposal for the international treaty to be negotiated yet this year.
'We will work with our people and we will bring to the Kyoto conference a strong American commitment to realistic and binding limits that will significantly reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases,' the president said at the United Nations.
The general plan to impose limits on developed nations but not others would likely only shift economic activity to the developing world, and not reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, Card warned.
William Cunningham, lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, agreed in testimony to a Senate subcommittee last week. Under the administration plan, 'carbon emissions will be transferred to the developing world, along with the jobs' - and with no benefit to the environment, he said.
Claussen at the State Department said one explanation for the lack of detail is the administration position that each nation should have flexibility in meeting its targets.
'We should do what we think makes the most sense in this country, and everybody else can do what makes the most sense in their country ... so long as you meet the targets,' she said in an interview.
The United States has a special obligation, she said, because it emits more carbon dioxide than any other nation - as might be expected in the world's largest economy. In addition, its per capita emissions are far ahead of other developed nations, in part because of Americans' heavy reliance on cars and trucks.
The nations of the world first addressed climate change at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 with an agreement that developed nations would try by 2000 to voluntarily reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels. Almost no country will meet that goal. U.S. emissions are about 13 percent higher than in 1990.
Agreements in 1995 in Berlin and in 1996 in Geneva led to the commitment for a new treaty with binding targets to be finalized in Kyoto.
On the horizon is another mass negotiating session in August in Bonn, where little progress is expected, and then more intense small-group talks among nations beginning in October and leading up to the Kyoto conference.
Any treaty involving the United States would require Senate ratification, but already more than 60 senators have signed a resolution by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., objecting to any agreement that does not also place requirements on the developing world. Card said, however, the administration could try to implement provisions through regulations even if the treaty were not ratified.
Acknowledging a lack of support so far, Assistant Secretary of State Claussen said Clinton and other administration officials would speak out more on the issue this summer. One opportunity was the Summit of Eight meeting last month in Denver. This time the European heads of state came away unimpressed with the Clinton commitment.
European nations have proposed that carbon dioxide emissions be 15 percent below 1990 levels by 2010.