US president Donald Trump stirred up a hornet’s nest last week when questioned on climate change during the final presidential debate last week. Asked about the US’s efforts on climate change, Trump deflected, by talking about America’s clean air vis a vis the “filthy air” in India, China and Russia. But, extrapolating clean air to mean climate-friendly action by the US is a smokescreen Trump, a notorious climate sceptic, has used on many occasions to avoid accountability over the US’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The US’s air has turned cleaner in terms of particulate matter and ground level ozone pollution over the last four decades. Much of this has to do with the Clean Air Act of 1970 fixing stringent exposure limits for PM 2.5 and five other major air pollutants from industrial and vehicular sources. The law also empowered the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to update these standards based on the latest scientific advice apart from taking punitive action for violation. Deaths due to air pollution in the US fell by about 30% between 1990 and 2010, while PM2.5 emissions have been decreasing. In sharp contrast, as per the latest State of Global Air report, India has the worst population-weighted annual average exposure to PM 2.5 pollution; deaths attributable to air pollution in the country stood at 980,000 in 2019. India also recorded a 61% rise in PM2.5-related deaths between 2010 and 2019.
That said, Trump needs to understand that the laudable US action on PM emission can’t be used to skate over the US’s GHG emissions. Indeed, given the manner in which his administration has been chipping away at green laws targeting GHGs, he may not even be able to make the ‘clean air’ claim in the future—climate change will make devastating wildfires, like the ones over the past few years, frequent, causing PM pollution to rise. The US is the highest per capita GHG emitter, apart from being one of the top absolute and the largest historical emitter. Indeed, as per the World Resources Institute, the US accounts for nearly a quarter of the cumulative global CO2 emissions since 1850, compared with India and China contributing 2% and 7.5%. Against this backdrop, the Trump administration has walked the US out of the Paris accord on carbon emissions and has been dismantling Obama-era (Clean Air Act 2009, which sought to regulate GHG emissions far more meaningfully vis-a-vis the window for the world to act on mitigating climate change effects) and other green protections. In August, it significantly weakened the regulation of methane emissions by oil&gas and made it harder for the EPA to regulate this in the future. In 2017, it moved to defang the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan that called for coal-fired power plants to cut emissions by 32% (over 2005 levels) by 2030. The Affordable Clean Energy Rule that replaced it will, as per the EPA, result in a mere 1% reduction. In 2018, it knocked back fuel efficiency and emission targets for vehicles—though transportation remains the largest source of US GHG emission—for the model years 2021-2026; fuel consumption and emissions have to improve only by 1.5% a year, down from the earlier 5% target. Not just this, it stripped California of the waiver under the Clean Air Act 1970 to set its fuel efficiency standards. The New York Times, along with Harvard Law School and Columbia Law School, estimated last week that the Trump administration is set upon reversing 99 environment rules—72 roll-backs completed and work in progress for 27 more. Trump needs to remember pointing at India etc will secure neither the US’s climate future nor the world’s.