16 Dec 2009
The politics of calling GHGs as pollutants
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Lisa P. Jackson, Administrator of the United States Environment Protection Agency (USEPA), on December 7, 2009 announced to the world that greenhouse gases (GHGs) threaten the public health and welfare of the American people, and therefore, can be considered an air pollutant under the US’s Clean Air Act. The US is now the first country in the world to call GHGs air pollutants. 

The implication of this announcement affects both, domestic climate politics in the US as well as international climate politics. 

For one, this announcement allows the USEPA to set GHG emission standards for vehicles and industries in the US. This effectively allows Barak Obama to bypass the US Congress, which is reluctant to pass any significant legislative solution to climate change. This is the most widely held view on the implications of this announcement. 

The timing of this announcement is also important because it came just days after the White House declared that Obama is going to attend the climate meet in Copenhagen. The USEPA announcement can therefore be interpreted as a face-saver for Obama at Copenhagen, as his negotiators have virtually derailed the negotiations and are the biggest stumbling block for a fair, ambitious and binding agreement at Copenhagen.

The international implication of this announcement is however much more grave. Once you declare any substance as a pollutant (such as sulphur dioxide, particulate matter, etc.) under a law, no one has the right to emit that substance. Now that the USEPA has declared GHGs as a pollutant, no one has the ‘right’ to emit CO2 in the US, allowing for CO2 emissions to be regulated just like any pollutant. This challenges the very premises of the rights of different countries to emit certain amounts of GHGs based on the principals of ‘equal rights to the atmospheric commons’ or ‘per capita entitlement to carbon space’.

Climate negotiations in Copenhagen are based on these very principles. Developing countries want developed countries to undertake deep cuts in emissions (because they have already over consumed their carbon space) so that they can emit more to meet the energy needs of their energy-starved population. US can now very well say that it doesn’t recognize these principles because under its domestic law, GHGs are pollutants and it cannot agree to a deal in which there is a right to ‘pollute’.

If the US sticks to this position (and there is already talk along these lines), it will sound the death-knell to climate negotiations now in Copenhagen and beyond.