President Barack Obama glossed over some inconvenient truths Tuesday in his climate-change speech to the United Nations. For one, as the U.S. cleans up emissions at home, it’s sending dirty fuel abroad to pollute the same sky.
As well, the U.S. is not cleaning up quite as aggressively as Obama implied in his remarks.
Obama was among scores of world leaders at the gathering, which followed by days a mass demonstration in New York City in support of action to combat global warming. Among those who marched: Al Gore, whose 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” shed light on the problem.
A look at some of Obama’s claims and how they compare with the facts:
OBAMA: “Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution by more than any other nation on Earth.”
THE FACTS: Europe as a whole has cut a bigger proportion of its emissions.
From 2005 to 2013, the period cited by Obama, the European Union reduced carbon dioxide by 13.9 percent, compared with a 10 percent reduction in the U.S. Because the United States pollutes more, it has reduced more raw emissions than the EU – cutting raw tonnage by 649 million tons since 2005, compared with Europe’s reduction of 614 million tons. But Europe has cut a bigger proportion of its emissions.
From 1990 levels, the benchmark year from which the EU measures progress, emissions were down about 18 percent in Europe. Meanwhile, compared with 1990, U.S. emissions are up about 10 percent, based on data from the Global Carbon Project.
OBAMA: “So, all told, these advances have helped create jobs, grow our economy, and drive our carbon pollution to its lowest levels in nearly two decades – proving that there does not have to be a conflict between a sound environment and strong economic growth.”
THE FACTS: About half of the 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions the U.S. has achieved in recent years can be attributed to the economic recession, not any specific actions from the Obama administration. Obama’s comments also left out that U.S. carbon emissions rose 2.9 percent from 2012 to 2013, the first increase since 2007, because higher natural gas prices spurred more coal use.
OBAMA: “We’re helping more nations skip past the dirty phase of development, using current technologies, not duplicating the same mistakes and environmental degradation that took place previously.”
THE FACTS: The U.S. is actually sending more dirty fuel abroad even as it takes steps to help other nations transition to cleaner energy. The U.S. has cuts its own coal consumption by 195 million tons in six years. But according to an AP analysis of Energy Department data, about 20 percent of that coal was shipped to power plants and other customers overseas. Emissions from that coal were not eliminated but rather moved to other countries. As well, the U.S. exported more products refined from oil – another dirty fuel – than it imported, starting in 2011.
On the other side of the pollution ledger, the Obama administration has placed restrictions on U.S. financing of coal plants overseas that don’t control for carbon dioxide and wants to lower tariffs on trade in clean energy technology.
OBAMA: “Today I’m directing our federal agencies to begin factoring climate resilience into our international development programs and investments.”
THE FACTS: Not an entirely new effort. The U.S. Agency for International Development already factors climate-change impact in its assistance programs, says Oxfam America. Raymond C. Offenheiser, Oxfam America’s president, welcomed news that more U.S. agencies will do the same while saying that amounts to “a drop in the bucket” without additional financial commitments.
OBAMA ADMINISTRATION: From a White House background document: “The Climate Action Plan is working. In 2012, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell to the lowest level in nearly two decades.”
THE FACTS: That plan has nothing to do with reductions in emissions in 2012 because it was not announced until June 2013. Moreover, two of its cornerstone regulations – controls on new and existing coal-fired power plants – are at this point just proposals. The administration isn’t expected to complete those rules until next year and some states may not submit plans until after Obama leaves office. The statement also leaves out the fact that in 2013, emissions in the U.S. rose for the first time since 2007.
Obama did invest in renewable energy and boost fuel economy before announcing the climate plan. But the plan can’t be credited with improving anything before it came into existence.