[pagebreak:Hearing an Environmental Echo at WIREC] A few hours before the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference ended Thursday, the United States slipped in its much-anticipated environmental pledge.

And no doubt those hoping to see an innovate plan to step up the country’s renewable-energy adoption will be disappointed.

"I don’t see anything new here," said Marchant Wentworth, a legislative representative for the clean-energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Many of the promises are basically recycled statements from the energy bill -- and other initiatives -- that the president signed into law in December.

Examples include the Environmental Protection Agency pledge to increase the amount of renewable fuels used in the U.S. to 36 billion gallons by 2022, and the Department of Energy’s goal of issuing $10 billion in loan guarantees for renewable energy and energy-efficiency systems.

One pledge even dated back to 2005, when the U.S. government -- the single greatest energy consumer in the world -- said 7.5 percent of its electric energy use will come from renewable resources by 2013

In total, the conference received more than 100 pledges from around the world, said Jim Pierobon, a spokesman for the American Council on Renewable Energy, which is helping to host the conference.

Cape Verde committed to increasing renewable energy sources to 50 percent of market share by 2020, and the Danish government promised to reduce its use of fossil fuels by at least 15 percent by 2025. Among the most ambitious pledges came from New Zealand, which set a goal of producing 90 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2025. But like the United States, New Zealand is also touting repeat objectives.

Still, greentech advocates shouldn’t have been too surprised by the U.S. pledge.

After President Bush took the podium at the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference on Wednesday -- with the eyes of more than 6,000 government leaders and industry representatives from 80 different countries watching -- industry insiders said the speech failed to dazzle.

He began his speech by proclaiming that "we’ve got to get off oil," both to avoid putting Americans "at the mercy of terrorists" and to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

He went on to call for the use of more nuclear power, hydrogen fuel and cellulosic ethanol and added that international agreements "must include commitments, solid commitments, by every major economy, and no country should get a free ride."

But the speech did not introduce much new or notable information with respect to the United States’ environmental policy.

For example, President Bush called for Congress to contribute $2 billion to an international cleantech fund in order for wealthier nations to help developing countries become more environmentally friendly, a pledge he actually introduced in his State of the Union address back in January (see Bush’s Tiny $2B Greentech Fund).

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"I didn’t hear any concrete commitments on anything," said Ethan Zinler, an analyst at New Energy Finance. "The idea that [Bush is] calling on the rest of the world to remove tariffs and trade barriers on clean-energy technology … Well, the U.S. is the one that has the high tariffs for importing ethanol.  I didn’t hear anything from him about lifting that."

What was significant, however, was the president’s departure from his traditional pro-ethanol stance. While the problem of skyrocketing grain prices and the food vs. fuel problem has been debated publicly for months, President Bush made his very first mention of "complaints from our cattlemen about the high price of corn."
"And so we got to do something about it, and the best thing to do is not to retreat from our commitment to alternative fuels," he said, "but to spend research and development money on alternatives to ethanol made from other materials -- for example, cellulosic ethanol holds a lot of promise."

A number of scientists and entrepreneurs hope that cellulosic ethanol, which is made from the nonfood materials like switchgrass, wood chips and corn cobs, can solve many of ethanol’s problems (see Biofuel Forecast Buoys a Bit and Biofuels Battle the Highs and Lows of Market Volatility). 

But costs and other challenges have left some wondering if cellulosic ethanol ever will be viable (see Gristmill post). And some environmentalists argue that cellulosic ethanol can still displace land that might compete with traditional food sources (see Lester Brown Talks Smack About Ethanol).

A move toward cellulosic ethanol will drive up the price of soybeans, a key food source in developing countries, said Jonathan Dorn, a staff researcher at the Earth Policy Institute.

"Rising food prices around the world are translating into social unrest," he said. "These are the countries that are going to breed terrorist groups. I don’t think, from Bush’s speech, that he’s connected any of these dots at all."

Moreover, Bush’s emphasis on alternative fuels was in direct conflict with his promise to veto a bill recently passed by the House of Representatives that would eliminate subsidies to large oil companies and instead direct those funds to sources of renewable energy.

"He’s saying that we have to get off of oil, but he’s contradicting it in action," said Dorn. "If Bush was actually serious about this speech that he made, he wouldn’t be threatening to veto this bill."