Tue | Nov 13, 2018

Too dirty for the USA - High-pollution fuels exported

Published:Sunday | January 11, 2015 | 12:00 AM


Solar panels glisten from every thatched hut on the crowded Gardi Sugdup, one of the largest islands in a remote chain off the Panamanian coast. But the tiny emblems of green energy offer no hope against climate change.

They have helped the island's Guna people reduce what was already a minuscule carbon footprint. The Guna cook with clean-burning gas. They use a small amount of diesel fuel to power fishing boats and a generator that lights bare bulbs dangling above dirt floors after sunset. They own one of the most pristine stretches of tropical rainforest in Panama, cleansing the atmosphere of carbon dioxide naturally.

Pollution rising

But larger forces threaten to uproot them, stemming from the failure by the rest of the world to rein in carbon emissions.

Pollution linked to global warming keeps rising even though the world's two largest carbon polluters have pledged to combat climate change, with the US committing to deeper cuts and China saying its emissions will stop growing by 2030.

It's a dangerous trajectory the US is stoking with record exports of dirty fuels, even as it reduces the pollution responsible for global warming at home.

The carbon embedded in those exports helps the US meet its political goals by taking it off its pollution balance sheet. But it doesn't necessarily help the planet.

That's because the US is sending more dirty fuel than ever to other parts of the world, where efforts to address the resulting pollution are just getting under way, if advancing at all. While the exported fuel has got cleaner, in the case of diesel, about 20 per cent of the exports are too dirty to burn in the US.

For the Guna, as carbon rises, so will the seas that imperil them. Several communities have plans to relocate to the mainland, fleeing severe floods and storms that have drowned some islands and divided others in half.

"We conserve; others consume," said Guillermo Archibold, an agronomist and former delegate to the Guna tribal congress.

Under President Barack Obama, the US has reduced more carbon pollution from energy than any other nation, about 475 million tons between 2008 and 2013, according to US Energy Department data.

Exports made up for savings

Less than one-fifth of that amount came from burning less gasolene and diesel, primarily in vehicles. But an Associated Press analysis of the data shows that US exports of gasolene and diesel more than made up for the savings at home in pollution abroad, releasing roughly more than one billion tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere elsewhere during the same period.

"It's a false image," said Onel Masardule of the Indigenous People's Biocultural Climate Change Assessment Initiative, a Peru-based environmental group that recently studied the Guna and climate change. "In reality, the US is still contaminating."

Among the recipients is Panama, where imports of diesel and gasolene from the US have nearly quadrupled since 2008.

Panama is the largest recipient of diesel fuel that is dirtier and more carbon-laden than would be allowed in engines in the US, but the fuel ends up in cars and trucks that don't have the same efficiency standards and are not regularly inspected and maintained, an AP investigation has found. Panama's requirement that drivers test emissions, including for carbon dioxide, are almost completely ignored.

This fossil fuel trade has soared under Obama as he has overseen a domestic boom in oil and natural gas production and ordered the biggest increases in fuel economy in history.

In 2010, the US still imported more products refined from oil than it exported. A year later, it was a bigger exporter than importer, the first time that happened since 1949. In 2012, these products were the single largest US export, worth US$117 billion, according to US Commerce Department figures.

The boom has helped the US reduce oil imports and create jobs in oil fields and ports. Without it, the Obama administration would be much further from a goal to double US exports. The trade deficit would be wider.

But for global warming, it means that, at the very least, the US is making a smaller dent than it claims on global warming.