Our view: U.S. goes the wrong way on green­house gases

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS -

For a pol­lu­tant that threat­ens the fu­ture of the planet, car­bon diox­ide does a Madi­son Av­enue-wor­thy job of im­age man­age­ment.

It’s col­or­less, odor­less and taste­less. But it wraps around the globe like a heat-trap­ping blan­ket. Last year, more of it was dumped into the air by U.S. en­ergy con­sump­tion than in any of the pre­vi­ous eight years, ac­cord­ing to re­search es­ti­mates.

If CO2 smelled like rot­ten eggs and gave the at­mo­sphere a sick­en­ing green hue, it’s a safe bet that this gas — which the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 can be reg­u­lated by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment — would get a lot more at­ten­tion.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump might ac­tu­ally do some­thing about it. “I’m an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist. I want crys­tal-clean wa­ter. I want crys­tal-clean air,” he told a rally last Septem­ber.

Well, the air is filthy with CO2. Lev­els of car­bon diox­ide — which oc­cur nat­u­rally when peo­ple ex­hale but un­nat­u­rally when fos­sil fuels are burned — were 280 parts per mil­lion at the dawn of the in­dus­trial age in the late 1800s. Last year, CO2 mea­sured 410 parts per mil­lion.

The re­sult has been a warm­ing planet with ris­ing seas, more ex­treme weather and dam­ag­ing wildfires. Heat gen­er­ated by green­house gases in the at­mo­sphere is warm­ing the oceans at a much faster rate than pre­vi­ously thought, ac­cord­ing to a new study pub­lished this week in the jour­nal Science.

Un­til last year, Amer­ica had three con­sec­u­tive years of de­clin­ing car­bon emis­sions, thanks in large part to reg­u­la­tions on ve­hi­cle emis­sions (some­thing Trump seeks to re­verse) and power com­pa­nies turn­ing away from burn­ing coal.

A record num­ber of coal plants closed last year be­cause of cheaper nat­u­ral gas and the pend­ing Oba­maera Clean Power Plan (which Trump seeks to scrap). But a com­bi­na­tion of other fac­tors — in­clud­ing a surg­ing econ­omy, heat­ing de­mands, more truck­ing and air travel, and un­reg­u­lated hikes in in­dus­trial pol­lu­tion — caused car­bon emis­sions to rise an es­ti­mated 3.4 per­cent in 2018, ac­cord­ing to a Rhodium Group anal­y­sis.

That makes it even tougher for the United States to meet its prom­ises un­der the Paris cli­mate agree­ment (from which Trump has cho­sen to with­draw).

Even the in­ter­na­tional goals un­der that ac­cord will likely not be enough to avoid the worst of cli­mate change, ac­cord­ing to a U.N. study and a re­port by 13 fed­eral agen­cies re­leased last year.

Where to go from here? We’ve long en­dorsed putting a price on car­bon diox­ide by tax­ing fos­sil-fuel pol­luters who use the skies as a free waste dump, and re­fund­ing the pro­ceeds to con­sumers. This mar­ket-based ap­proach would make cleaner en­ergy sources more com­pet­i­tive.

En­ergy taxes are un­pop­u­lar, par­tic­u­larly if the benefits are hard to see. But the costs of in­ac­tion are in­cal­cu­la­ble.

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