Before considering the difficulty the international community has faced in regulating the emission of carbon dioxide across borders, we will first look at some strategies that were employed at the national level to purify the air of other harmful pollutants.
The Clean Air Act
The United States emerged as an early leader in the effort to improve air quality with the passage of the first Clean Air Act in 1963. This landmark piece of legislation was updated in 1970 to regulate the emissions of 189 pollutants known to cause smogfog made heavier and darker by smoke and chemical fumes. Tough standards were established for a host of harmful air contaminants including nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and lead.
Cycle of Toxic Air Pollution
A subsequent revision to the law in 1990 sought to tackle the problem of acid rainPrecipitation containing dangerous levels of sulfur and/or nitrogen; acid rain is often caused by emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal. China is facing a growing acid rain problem., which was largely caused by emissions of sulfur dioxide from coal-based power plants. It established a new system of tradeable “emissions allowances” in the hopes that a market-based solution would be both effective and lasting.1 The tradeable emissions concept was introduced as an integral part of the international law, the Montreal Protocol. This protocol seeks to control the same issues as the Clean Air Act but under international consensus.
As a result of these new federal standards, the coal industry, which has long produced the bulk of American electricity, was forced to adapt. Most importantly, coal-burning facilities were required to install scrubbers in their smokestacks to capture sulfur before it could be released into the open air.2
In 2012, after more than 20 years of deliberation, the EPA issued the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS), the first national standards in the U.S. to regulate power plant emissions of mercury and other toxic air pollutants. These standards were required by the Clean Air Act, but took 20 years to finalize. These new standards require power plants to deploy pollution control technologies to prevent 90 percent of mercury emissions and 88 percent of acid gas emissions.
The Clean Air Act has been unable to eliminate the problem of acid rainPrecipitation containing dangerous levels of sulfur and/or nitrogen; acid rain is often caused by emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal. China is facing a growing acid rain problem. completely, but it did achieve significant gains. The introduction of low-sulfur gasolineA form of highly refined oil that is primarily used to fuel passenger automobiles, especially in the United States. and widespread adoption of catalytic converters, which “trap smogfog made heavier and darker by smoke and chemical fumes-causing pollutants,” also helped improve America’s air quality. Today’s vehicle emissions are 98 percent cleaner when it comes to such pollutants than their counterparts from the 1970s. 3
Thus, the United States was able to dedicate itself effectively to the reduction of acid rainPrecipitation containing dangerous levels of sulfur and/or nitrogen; acid rain is often caused by emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal. China is facing a growing acid rain problem. and smogfog made heavier and darker by smoke and chemical fumes by eliminating sulfur from the emissions of vehicles and factories. Achieving goals like this on the national level has proven quite feasible for an advanced country like the United States.
To read more about the worsening problem of air quality in China, see Appendix H, “Chinese Coal.”
Many people might not think about exhaust fumes when they fly on a plane, but aircraft are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Aircraft emissions represent only a small share of overall greenhouse gas pollution—about three percent of global totals and ten percent of transportation emissions—but that share is the fastest growing of any sector.
The new line of “super-jumbo” jets being produced by Boeing and Airbus emits as much pollution as a “14km (nine-mile) queue of traffic on the road below.” Within two decades, 1,500 or more of these planes could be in service, producing an amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to the emissions of five million cars.4
Since there are more than one billion cars on the road, it may seem like aircraft emissions are still insignificant in comparison. But, there are several factors that even the scales:
“Whereas cars are used roughly for about an hour or so a day, long-haul jet airlines are on the move for at least 10 hours a day. And they burn tax-free, high-octane fuel, which dumps hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 into the most sensitive part of the atmosphere…Although cars and aircraft discharge roughly the same amount of CO2 for each passenger-kilometre, the aircraft travel an awful lot farther.”5
Compounding the problem is the fact that the popularity and frequency of air travel only continue to grow. It is estimated that the “annual increment in air travel as 2020 approaches will equal the total number of miles flown in 1969.”6 Because of these factors, aircraft emissions loom as a troubling problem on the horizon.
U.S. Energy Usage by Vehicle, 2007
Next: The Kyoto Protocols