America’s Greenhouse Obligation


Click on this map to view a larger size in PDF format. Source: Purdue University

This December, world leaders will meet in Copenhagen for the next round of climate talks. This is where the successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, the carbon-cap-and-reduction agreement that expires in 2012, will be crafted.

The United States has a very special role to play in these negotiations, given that it has produced more greenhouse gas, in total, than any other nation.

Yes, China recently eclipsed America as the number one greenhouse gas polluter in the world. ANd India’s emissions are growing quickly too. Many people argue that we shouldn’t take action here in America unless large developing nations like China and India do so first, because it will be useless.

But this is a false argument.

Over the past 150 years, the US has emitted some 328,264 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (MtCO2). This adds up to almost 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) caused by human activities, which are estimated to be well over 1,000,000 MtCO2 since 1850.

By comparison, no other nation has produced more than eight percent of historic GHGs. Not even China, which emitted 92,950 MtCO2 over the same time frame.

This places upon the US a moral obligation to lead the world’s response to the climate crisis.

Which brings us to December’s meeting in Copenhagen. This is pretty much the last chance we have to get an agreement that will produce coordinated, effective action to prevent catastrophic climate change. Central to the negotiations at the UN climate conference will be national targets, and ultimately a global target, for greenhouse gas pollution reductions.

That means that we need to show up in Copenhagen with the strongest possible commitments to cutting our own GHGs.

The Waxman-Markey climate bill making its way through the House of Representatives simply will not cut it. (This is the position of Greenpeace, where I work, and I agree.)

Scientists tell us that global GHGs must peak by 2015, and then be gradually drawn down to as close to zero as possible by 2050, if we are to avert the worst effects of global warming. More precisely, global emissions must be 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80-95% by 2050.

Waxman-Markey would set domestic targets of only around 14% below 2005 levels by 2020, which works out to be about 4% of 1990 levels.

The Obama Administration has another shot at regulating greenhouse gas emissions, however. The EPA recently concluded in an “endangerement finding” that there is sufficient evidence showing that greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is endangering human health and welfare. The agency is currently accepting public comments to help it decide what to do next.

Write to the EPA now and urge it to regulate greenhouse gases.

If you still doubt that America needs to lead the world in tackling global warming, consider this: Per person, GHGs in the US have historically been far higher than those of most other countries in the world. In 2005, the United States emitted 23.5 metric tons of global warming pollution for every man, woman and child in the nation. That’s more than four times greater than China (5.5 tons per person), and almost 14 times the rate of India (1.7 tons per capita).

Now, imagine a world in which the nearly three BILLION people living in India and China achieve per capita emissions levels equivalent to those of the US, where we have just over 300 million people.

You see where I’m going with this: If China and India’s per capita GHG emissions levels reach ours, there is no chance of averting the worst effects of global warming. That’s why it’s so important that the US not only lower our own emissions as aggressively as is feasible, but that we also help lead the rest of the world, especially the developing world, towards real solutions to global warming and help them economically so they can bypass the dirty fossil fuels of the past as much as possible.

If you need further convincing, check out “America’s Share of the Climate Crisis,” a new Greenpeace report. It provides a detailed, state-by-state breakdown of historic emissions data for all 50 states.

I was not terribly shocked to learn that my home state of Texas “would rank sixth out of 184 countries in the world in total emissions, trailing just China, Russia, Germnay, Japan, and the United Kingdom” if it were its own country. But still, that’s a staggering statistic.

According to the report, from 1960-2005 each state produced an average of 4,449 MtCO2. That amount ranks 30th out of the 184 countries included in the study. Put another way: More than 150 countries emit less GHGs than the average American state.

With numbers like these, it’s undeniable: Given the depth of our responsibility for creating the climate crisis, it’s incumbent upon us to lead the world’s efforts to stop global warming.

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