President Obama's major focus on climate change in his inaugural speech and his nomination as secretary of state of Sen. John F. Kerry, a strong advocate of combatting climate change and sponsor of related legislation, raises the question about what the administration wants to do to counter global warming beyond the very significant greenhouse gas reductions that are now already under way in the U.S.
For example, EPA and the Department of Transportation have launched several major pollution-control measures that will produce very significant reductions in greenhouse gases even though those gases are not the primary target of the regulations.
One example is the EPA's stationary source air toxic (Maximum Achievable Control Technology) rules for electricity generation with the aim of switching from coal to natural gas and reducing three sets of pollutants — air toxins, sulfur dioxide (SO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Another example is the DOT-EPA auto efficiency rules just made final a few months ago, intended both to reduce reliance on use of oil for security reasons and to reduce CO2.
These actions come on top of the fracking/horizontal drilling revolution that has transformed U.S. energy production to make America one of the world's largest producers of natural gas, which has a much lower CO2 profile than coal. In part because natural gas is priced lower than coal at the moment and in part because of some of the regulations noted above, the U.S. has in the last year reduced greenhouse gases by a much wider margin than any other developed country. It has also essentially met the target set at Copenhagen — the site of the last major international climate change meeting — for CO2 reductions by developed countries.
This raises an interesting but unreported fact about America's net greenhouse gas emissions: the massive and unprecedented reforestation of the eastern half of the U.S. over the last century has operated as a huge carbon "sink." No one has publicly run the numbers, but this reforestation may have offset a great deal of U.S. greenhouse gas output over those decades. Because of this, the U.S. deserves much less opprobrium than what gets heaped on it by environmental critics and economic rivals like the European Union.
Given the positive trends in the U.S. about declining greenhouse gases, and the EPA's regulation of CO2 under the Clean Air Act since the Supreme Court agreed with EPA that it is a "pollutant," what more is to be done?
If any action is sought, it should be to corral China into the modern world of pollution control. That country soon will be emitting twice the CO2 of the U.S., in part because American environmental controls inevitably drive low-margin companies to China and other nations where they can pollute more freely. This factor makes overall pollution worse — not only is CO2 not abated, but traditional pollutants like deadly "particulate matter" (PM) are increased because they are uncontrolled in most developing countries.
Unfortunately, the massive traditional pollution problems faced by China — witness the horrific recent PM inversion in Beijing — don't hurt just China's people. Pollutants such as PM travel long distances across the Pacific; 25 percent of the West Coast's PM comes from China, according to some accounts. PM is hugely expensive to clean up, and thus poses unacceptably high costs on California which has no way to distinguish in clean programs between tons that come from Californians and those that come from China.
If the White House wants to make any real contribution to the environment, it would not impose more unilateral CO2 controls in the U.S., forcing even more jobs abroad. It would instead negotiate a treaty with China over traditional pollutants that currently cost American lives and treasure. This would, of course, bring enormous immediate relief to both Chinese and Californians. But it would also produce in China massive CO2 reduction co-benefits for the future, as traditional pollution reduction is already demonstrating in the US.
• C. Boyden Gray has served as White House counsel, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, special envoy for Eurasian energy and special envoy for European Union affairs. His column "Arbitrary and Capricious" runs monthly.