America’s missed climate targets cost global economy $1 trillion, Dublin-based think tank finds

“Someone, somewhere, at some time will eventually pay the price.”

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Image Credit: Shannan Stoll

Since 1992, the United States consistently has missed its targets for reducing globe-warming emissions, and a Dublin-based think tank estimates the resulting damage to the global economy has been $1 trillion.

The U.S. polluted far more – 20 billion tons of CO2 worth – than American negotiators said it would during repeated rounds of global climate deals, including Rio in 1992, Kyoto in 1997, Copenhagen in 2009, and Paris in 2015, a report published by the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) today concludes.

“This is not because the agreed targets were too ambitious or costly to meet,” IIEA wrote. “On the contrary: U.S. negotiators were highly successful in incorporating U.S. preferences into agreements, and targets were eminently achievable; but the costs have been vastly exaggerated by industry-funded studies.”

The researchers pointed to history to illustrate the gap between projections produced by industry on the costs of environmental laws versus the costs that resulted once those laws were adopted. “For example,” they wrote, “before the Clean Air Act, industry claimed that the cost of sulphur reduction would be $1,500 per ton, whereas the final cost was $1.50 per ton.”

U.S. climate progress “critically insufficient”

Building on data from the Climate Action Tracker, which analyzes countries’ progress toward international climate goals, the authors examined the difference between U.S. greenhouse gas pollution and the expectations American negotiators agreed to during global climate summits.

Climate Action Tracker ranks the U.S. alongside Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Ukraine as “critically insufficient” and “not at all consistent with holding warming to well below 2° Celsius let alone with the Paris Agreement’s stronger 1.5°C limit.”

The new report predicts that between 2018 and 2025, the U.S. will pollute 5 billion more tons of greenhouse gases than it said it would under the Paris Agreement, which the U.S. remains a party to, even though the Trump administration has said it will initiate an exit at the first opportunity, which arrives at the end of 2019.

“By late 2016, President Obama believed his administration had ‘transformed the United States into a global leader in the fight against climate change,’ because the U.S. was then on track to meet its internationally-agreed targets,” the report said. “This moment has now passed.”

The “Trump effect”

Sign reading 'Trump digs coal' at a GOP rally in December 2016

Louisiana GOP Rally on December 9, 2016 at Dow Hangar, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Credit: Tammy Anthony BakerCC BY 2.0

The IIEA highlighted the role that the Trump administration has played in accelerating climate change.

“Emissions growth resumed in 2018 amid the Trump administration’s single-minded determination to roll back Obama-era climate protections,” said IIEA author Joseph Curtin, “and the prospect of meeting this pledge has quietly receded.”

In December 2018, the IIEA made international headlines with a report, also authored by Curtin, that described a “Trump effect” that “applied a brake” to the world’s efforts to meet the Paris targets by making fossil fuel investments more attractive, providing “moral and political cover” for other countries that also fall short and damaging mutual goodwill at international negotiations.

Today’s report cites a 2016 U.S. federal study for estimates that “a tonne of emissions would cause $42 worth of economic damage in 2020,” which results in the IIEA’s $1 trillion conclusion. The report adds that “costs could be many orders of magnitude higher.”

The new report points to three factors in American politics that have created an impasse on climate: partisanship, Senate procedural rules that allow fossil fuel advocates to play an obstructionist role, and the role of “special interests” like the fossil fuel industry.

Role of American politics

Senator Ed Markey at the UN Climate Talks in 2017

Senator Ed Markey speaking at the “We Are Still In” alternative U.S. climate action center at the UN climate talks in 2017. Credit: Ashley Braun, DeSmog

The Dublin-based think tank takes a rather reductionist view of American politics, crediting Democrats with supporting action “whereas Republicans do not.”

That doesn’t reflect the full historical track record of many prominent Democrats – for example, the Obama administration oversaw the spread of shale gas drilling and fracking nationwide and adopted what it called an “all of the above” energy strategy that included explicit support for coal, oil, gas, and renewables. And when it comes to the American public, both Republicans and Democrats supported more renewable energy and said the government wasn’t acting strongly enough on climate change, a Pew survey reported by Gizmodo found a year ago.

More recently, however, the Green New Deal proposed by Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both Democrats, represents a shift towards a much stronger U.S. response to climate change.

More recently, however, the Green New Deal proposed by Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both Democrats, represents a shift towards a much stronger U.S. response to climate change.

“We are facing a national crisis,” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez said on the House floor on March 26, remarks captured in a video that’s garnered over 15 million views. “And if we do not ascend to that crisis – if we do not ascend to the levels in which we were threatened at the Great Depression, when we were threatened in World War II – if we do not ascend to those levels, if we tell the American public that we are more willing to invest and bail out big banks than we are willing to invest in our farmers and our urban families, then I don’t know what we’re here doing.”

On the legal hook?

Beyond internal American politics, the IIEA’s report hints at the possibility of an international response to American inaction. It describes three legal implications from the $1 trillion in damages they calculated, writing that possibilities included legal action in the International Court of Justice, domestic lawsuits in the U.S. against state or federal regulators, and lawsuits against major American polluters.

The report adds that prospects for successful litigation “remain low” at this time, but describes global trends that could raise odds of legal action in the future, including “promising legal precedents in Europe, and the number of lawsuits before U.S. courts.”

“Three decades of climate history suggests that a window of opportunity for legislation – be it delivering a green new deal, a carbon fee, or an alternative approach – will eventually open again,” said Curtin. “If this does not happen in 2021, the focus will again turn to litigation.”

“Someone, somewhere, at some time,” he added, “will eventually pay the price.”

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