Vice President Joe Biden’s promise to take steps to reduce U.S. carbon emissions after he leaves office is a good gesture. But whether the world takes the administration at its word on the issue is another question.
The economic costs of reducing carbon emissions have been relatively small compared with the costs of slowing down global warming and the climate change-related threats they pose. To date, the only greenhouse gas polluting the atmosphere that has been made to pay for the damage it does, of course, is carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas. That’s because it accounts for roughly 86 percent of total U.S. emissions, and because there is so much of it in the atmosphere already.
Other greenhouse gases, such as methane, have emitted far more greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide, but their costs in terms of climate change and related economic damage has been far more modest.
The International Monetary Fund calculates that for every 100 tons of carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere every year, the world economy loses an estimated $76 million or about 0.6 percent of its output. Methane, meanwhile, costs about 2.5 percent of the global economy, because it damages the environment and contributes to warming, as opposed to the 0.1 percent cost of carbon dioxide, according to the IMF. To make things even more complicated, what is considered the economic cost of greenhouse gases varies depending on the country or region, and the amount of greenhouse gases released.
The United States takes the third place among countries emitting the most greenhouse gases, behind China and Russia. According to the latest estimates of emissions available from the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States emits 28.1 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, while China emits 9.4 million tons, and Russia has slightly more than 3 million tons. By most estimates, the United States emits about 3.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, so some part of that number is methane.
Because the economic costs of carbon emissions are so small when compared with the risks to the planet, other industrialized countries have been slower to adopt carbon reduction policies than the United States. In fact, the public discourse in the United States about climate change has been about whether to reduce emissions, not whether to stop them.