USA: Environmental Issues, Policies and Clean Technology

The USA is a large country situated on the North American continent, with a total area of 9,161,966 sq km, making it the 3rd largest nation in the world.

The climate is generally temperate in the contiguous states, but as USA contains both Alaska and Hawaii, the climate varies from tropical to arctic.

The United States is currently the most prosperous and powerful nation on the planet, with an annual GDP of around $19.36 trillion as per 2017 estimates.

Environmental Issues of the USA

People in America have a high standard of living, but this has come at a price to the environment. The USA is the second largest contributor to global CO2 emissions, at 6870 million metric tons in 2014 alone. Furthermore, per capita (i.e. per person) emissions in the USA are very high at 16.49 tons in 2014. For comparison, the average emissions per person in the UK is 6.5 tons per person, and in China it is around 7.54 tons per person.

Furthermore, due to the vast amount of food, gas and electronic commodities consumed by the USA, the WWF has estimated that if everybody on the planet lived as an average North American does, then we would need 5 planets to be sustainable.

The USA has also been criticized for not ratifying the Kyoto protocol, and is the only signatory not to do so. The Kyoto Protocol is an extremely important part of the UNFCCC treaty which is aimed at fighting climate change and came into effect in 2005. The USA signed up to the Koyoto protocol in 1997 but pulled out amid concerns that the protocol put too much pressure on developed nations relative to developing nations.

Apathy towards carbon emissions and climate change is one of the major environmental concerns related to USA. A 2010 poll conducted by Gallup has shown that American concern for environmental issues was at it’s the lowest level of for 20 years. Gallup has suggested that this may be because of economic concerns or perhaps that Americans perceive the environmental condition of the United States to be improving.

However, in a study by the Pew Research Center in March 2016, found that 74% of US adults believe that “the country should do whatever is takes to protect the environment” but on 23% said that the “country has gone too far in its efforts to protect the environment”. The study claims that there has been a noticeable widening gap between the two major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, when it comes to their attitudes towards environmental issues. Up to 58% of Republican’s surveyed thought that the existing environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy.

A study found that Russell 1000 companies (the high-ranking companies on the Russell 3000 Index stock market index) based in the US are less likely to adopt significant climate change policies. The study, conducted by The Conference Board, Bloomberg and Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Focal Point USA, shows that though 39% of non-American companies have suitable climate change policies in place, this figure is less than halved when looking at companies based in USA and is closer to 16%. Moreover, the study showed that US companies are less transparent than global competitors when discussing sustainability policies.

Water is another major environmental issue in USA. Due to air pollution, the USA and Canada experience disproportionate amounts of acid rain, and this can cause damage to trees, soils and animal ecosystems as well as destroying buildings. Pesticides and fertilizers used in farming can also cause water pollution.

Fresh water is scarce in western areas of the country and there is currently a major drought in the mid-west, the worst in more than half a century, leading to widespread crop failure. Desertification in these areas is also a concern.

Though a land of opportunity, the USA is a considerable global contributor of carbon emissions into the atmosphere

Though a land of opportunity, the USA is a considerable global contributor of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Image Source:

Environmental Policies of the USA

The Environmental policies of the USA are currently undergoing a radical shift due to the priorities of the new President Donald Trump, who in a 2012 tweet said that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

Therefore, unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama, who brought in new policies to reduce CO2 emissions and increasing renewable energy use, Trump has increased fossil fuel use so as not to impede American businesses.

Since his inauguration, Trump has threatened to close the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and cancel many environmental policies. The most infamous of which is the USA’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change Mitigation on June 1st 2017, which is a global effort to reduce the effects of global warming.

Despite this, the United States is party to many international environmental agreements, including:

Various Air Pollution agreements: these include the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution and the Protocol to the 1979 Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution Concerning the Control of Emissions of Nitrogen Oxides or Their Transboundary Fluxes.

Desertification: The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, which aims to prevent drought and desertification, entered into force in 1996 and is 193 nations are party to this.

Environmental Modification: This convention aims to stop any use of environmental modification techniques in warfare.

At a national level, the USA has its own laws and regulations to tackle environmental issues. The United States Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, is the main agency that deals with sustainability in the United States. However, under the new leadership of the Trump administration, the EPA has taken a 31% cut to their 2018 budget.

The Clean Air Act is a federal law that helps to monitor and regulate air emissions and through this law the EPA have been able to implement National Ambient Air Quality Standards in each state to protect human health. It was fully established in 1970 and amendments were made in both 1978 and 1990.

The Clean Water Act, established in 1972, regulates pollution in water systems and regulates the quality of surface water. This has allowed the EPA to set industry wastewater standards and standards for surface water contaminants.

The Toxic Substances Control Act allows the EPA to ask for reports regarding chemical substances.

A Clean Future for the USA?

There does appear to be improvement in terms of CO2 emissions, as emissions from the United States have fallen by around 7% since the start of the millennium. America is now also not the world’s biggest polluter, as the CO2 emissions of China are now 80% higher than those from the US. This gap will continue to get bigger as the USA heads in the right direction, with the United States achieving a 2% decrease in carbon emissions in 2011.

Ex-President Barak Obama was an advocate of a sustainable future and is hoping that the USA can cut CO2 emissions by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050 which is the same target as other developed nations, such as the UK and EU, however, this is no longer the case under the current administration.

The USA is the most influential nation on the planet and if serious changes are going to be made towards sustainability then it is America that must lead the way. Nevertheless, with climate change mitigation policies taking a back seat, it is unsure what the future holds.

The unspoilt grandeur of Alaska, USA

The unspoilt grandeur of Alaska, USA. Image Credits: CIA Factbook

Sources and Further Reading

This article was updated on the 16th May, 2018.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

G.P. Thomas

Written by

G.P. Thomas

Gary graduated from the University of Manchester with a first-class honours degree in Geochemistry and a Masters in Earth Sciences. After working in the Australian mining industry, Gary decided to hang up his geology boots and turn his hand to writing. When he isn't developing topical and informative content, Gary can usually be found playing his beloved guitar, or watching Aston Villa FC snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.


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