U.S. Already Doing More than its Share to Lower Atmospheric Carbon

Published July 1, 1999

Should the United States tell Kyoto Protocol enthusiasts what they can do with their Earth-saving treaty?

This less-than-diplomatic perspective on the global warming accord is justified, according to one critic, because there is sufficient evidence that this country’s natural environment is steadily removing from the atmosphere the greenhouse gases it produces by burning fossil fuels.

So why, asks the Manhattan Institute’s Peter Huber, should the U.S.–albeit the world’s leading producer of greenhouse gases–be required to foot most of the bill for cleaning up the environment? “If the estimate [of carbon removal] is right, we don’t owe the rest of the world a dime on this one,” said Huber. “They owe us.”

Huber, a senior fellow at the Institute, was commenting on an article that appeared in the October 16 issue of Science. According to the journal, each year the United States releases 1.6 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere–but absorbs 1.7 billion metric tons.

“Prevailing winds blow west to east” across the United States, Huber noted. “This means carbon dioxide concentrations should be 300 parts per billion higher in the North Atlantic than in the North Pacific. But in fact, they’re about 300 parts per billion lower.”

Huber suggests that the Science paper, “A Large Terrestrial Carbon Sink in North America Implied by Atmospheric and Oceanic Carbon Dioxide Data and Models,” might have been more appropriately titled “America to Kyoto: Pound Sand.”

The Science article’s authors explained that the country’s carbon uptake is so great because:

  • Former agricultural lands are being allowed to return to their natural, more heavily forested, state, thanks to modern fertilizers that produce greater amounts of food on fewer acres. Moreover, exhausted timberlands are being reforested. Both forms of forest development are sucking up large amounts of carbon.
  • Coal mining and fertilizer production processes create carbon dioxide, which feeds the new growth that absorbs greenhouse gases.

The Science article, Huber suggests, missed an opportunity to recognize the carbon-sequestering contributions of landfills that “mummify the millions of tons of carbon-rich food, paper, and diapers that we dump into them. Recycling newspapers just interrupts the carbon-sinking. Composting is even worse.”

If there is a greenhouse gas problem, Huber argues, the rest of the world is the problem, not the U.S.

“We recycle our carbon,” he said. “Perhaps we could do even more. But the fact is, we’re doing more than our share already.”