WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush, under fire for resisting tough action on global warming, on Thursday called on 15 influential countries to agree by the end of 2008 on a long-term goal to cut emissions.
The proposals, announced before a summit of major powers that will consider the issue, stressed new technologies to make energy use more efficient and restated Bush's rejection of firm caps on carbon dioxide emissions that many of his allies want.
Critics dismissed the strategy as a diversion and a delaying tactic but some European leaders and a U.N official expressed hope that it might be a first step to more action.
It was the strongest statement yet from the United States about curbing climate-warming emissions after the international first phase of the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had hoped to forge an agreement on climate change at a Group of Eight summit of major industrialized countries she is hosting next week and Bush has been under pressure to give some ground at the meeting.
"The United States takes this issue seriously," Bush said in a speech on his agenda for the summit. "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 help develop this goal, the United States will convene a series of meetings of nations that produce most greenhouse gas emissions, including nations with rapidly growing economies like India and China," he added.
Bush's proposals included cuts in tariff barriers to encourage sharing environmental technology.
Merkel said Bush's announcement showed that global warming could not be ignored but said that work was still needed on the concrete formulations to be used at the G8 meeting at the Baltic resort of Heiligendamm.
"I think the important thing is - for the first time America is saying it wants to be part of a global deal," British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Sky News.
In an interview with Reuters, U.N. climate change chief Yvo de Boer said that White House staff had indicated that this could be the start of a policy shift.
ENVIRONMENTALISTS ARE SKEPTICAL
But many environmentalists were highly skeptical.
"The plan announced by President Bush today is a complete charade," said Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth. "It is an attempt to make the Bush administration look like it takes global warming seriously without actually doing anything to curb emissions."
The U.S. strategy calls for consensus on long-term goals for reducing the greenhouse gases that spur global warming, but not before the end of 2008, shortly before Bush's White House term ends. Bush would also call on countries to set medium term goals "that reflect their own mix of energy sources and future energy needs."
Bush plans to convene the first in a series of meetings later this year on ways to limit global emissions by a set amount by about 2050. About 15 countries would be invited, including China and India, which like the United States, are major polluters,
Merkel had wanted the G8 summit to pave the way for negotiations to expand and extend the Kyoto Protocol on climate change beyond 2012.
Bush, who rejected the Kyoto accord, opposes the so-called "cap and trade" system at the heart of Kyoto involving credits for companies that cut emissions and penalties for those that do not.
Bush's plan found little favor among Democrats who now run the U.S. Congress. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he hoped Bush's announcement was not merely a "public-relations stunt" aimed at heading off criticism ahead of the G8 summit.
Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who heads the Senate's environment committee, noted that she had urged Bush twice this year to meet with the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitters, adding, "Today he has accepted that challenge."
But Boxer said, "No lasting progress on global warming can happen without mandatory caps on global warming pollution."
At least six bills that aim to limit emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide are under consideration in Congress.
Outside Washington, more than a dozen states, including powerhouse economy California, are pushing for tough limits on climate-warming emissions. Some large industrial U.S. businesses including Alcoa Inc. and DuPont Co. have joined a coalition calling on Washington to set limits on carbon dioxide emissions.
(Additional reporting by Noah Barkin in Berlin and Gerald Wynn in London)