President Bush, seeking to blunt international criticism of the U.S. record on climate change, urged 15 major nations to agree by the end of next year on a global target for reducing greenhouse gases.
Bush called for the first in a series of meetings to begin this fall, bringing together countries identified as major emitters of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. The list would include the United States, China, India and major European countries. After setting a goal, the nations would be free to develop their own strategies to meet the target.
The president outlined his proposal in a speech ahead of next week's summit in Germany of leading industrialized nations, where global warming is to be a major topic and Bush will be on the spot.
The United States has refused to ratify the landmark 1997 Kyoto Protocol requiring industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2012. Developing countries, including China and India, were exempted from that first round of cuts. Bush rejected the Kyoto approach, as well as the latest German proposal for what happens after 2012.
"The United States takes this issue seriously," Bush said. "The new initiative I'm outlining today will contribute to the important dialogue that will take place in Germany next week."
Environmental groups were quick to criticize Bush's plan.
Friends of the Earth president Brent Blackwelder called the proposal "a complete charade. It is an attempt to make the Bush administration look like it takes global warming seriously without actually doing anything to curb emissions."
National Environmental Trust president Philip Clapp said, "This is a transparent effort to divert attention from the president's refusal to accept any emissions reductions proposals at next week's G-8 summit. After sitting out talks on global warming for years, the Bush administration doesn't have very much credibility with other governments on the issue. "
And, Daniel J. Weiss, climate strategy director for the liberal Center for American Progress, said the Bush administration has a "do-nothing" policy on global warming despite U.S. allies' best efforts to spur U.S. reductions.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair called Bush's plan "a big step forward."
"For the first time America's saying it wants to be part of a global deal," Blair said in Johannesburg, South Africa, speaking to Sky News. "For the first time it's setting its own domestic targets. For the first time it's saying it wants a global target for the reduction of emissions, and therefore for the first time I think the opportunity for a proper global deal."
Along with his call for a global emissions goal, Bush urged other nations to eliminate tariffs on clean energy technologies.
Germany, which holds the European Union and Group of Eight presidencies, is proposing a target allowing global temperatures to increase no more than 2 degrees Celsius -- the equivalent of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit -- before being brought back down. Practically, experts have said that means a global reduction in emissions of 50% below 1990 levels by 2050.
Instead, Bush called for nations to hold a series of meetings, beginning this fall, to set a global emissions goal. Each nation then would have to decide on how to achieve the goal, White House officials said.
"The United States will work with other nations to establish a new framework for greenhouse gas emissions for when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012," the president said.
"So my proposal is this: By the end of next year, America and other nations will set a long-term global goal for reducing greenhouse gases. To develop this goal, the United States will convene a series of meetings of nations that produce the most greenhouse gasses, including nations with rapidly growing economies like India and China.
"Each country would establish midterm management targets and programs that reflect their own mix of energy sources and future energy needs," he said. "In the course of the next 18 months, our nations will bring together industry leaders from different sectors of our economies, such as power generation, and alternative fuels and transportation."
James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, rejected charges that the U.S. was dragging its feet in the fight against climate change.
"This is actually accelerating it," he said. "If we wanted to put things off further, you'd have annual meetings at the U.N. for the next five years. If you want to accelerate it, we do a lot of groundwork in between the U.N. meetings so we can bring the work product to the U.N. meetings."
The U.S. last year experienced a drop in emissions of carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping gas most blamed for global warming. The 1.3% decline from 2005, the first drop in 11 years, was due to a mild winter and a cool summer, along with other factors including greater industrial efficiency and increased capacity of nuclear power plants.
Carbon dioxide is produced from burning fossil fuels, including natural gas and coal, which are used widely to produce electricity.
While Bush announced his new proposal, the administration registered its opposition to the idea of a global carbon-trading program allowing countries to buy and sell carbon credits to meet limits on carbon dioxide levels. The White House also expressed opposition to the energy efficiency targets advocated by the EU.