Make foreign polluters pay

Motorists driving along the lakefront in Chicago this winter saw firsthand the effects of climate change: record-low Lake Michigan ice cover.

The average ice cover among all five of the Great Lakes as of March 21 was just 1%, according to NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, where scientists have seen long-term changes in ice cover as a result of global warming.

A lack of lake ice cover adversely affects recreational and educational activities, but there is another more troubling effect: warmer lake waters could boost the population of more than 40 invasive species that threaten the $7 billion fishery industries of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Basin. For example, zebra and quagga mussels have thrived, and they damage the lakes’ ecosystem by filtering out large amounts of much-needed plankton. U.S. Geological Survey scientists say that these invasive species could lengthen their reproductive cycle from a few months in spring and summer to year-round in warmer water.

The Great Lakes are just one place where we see the devastating effects of a warmer planet caused by fossil fuel emissions. In 2023, there were 58 tornadoes in the Chicago area, the most to ever occur here in a calendar year since the National Weather Service began keeping those records in 1950. Scientists also confirmed that last year was the hottest year on record.

The news is not all bad. Illinois has reduced its energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by 10.5% since 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, thanks in part to the ongoing “phaseout” of fossil fuels called for by the Illinois Climate Equity and Jobs Act signed by Gov. JB Pritzker in 2021.

Still, carbon emissions remain a substantial cause of warming trends.

One area that holds promise: making polluters — specifically foreign importers — pay for the destruction caused by fossil fuels. It’s an idea that most people support. According to the 2023 Yale Climate Opinion Maps, 75% of people in the Chicago region support taxing fossil fuel companies. The same idea should hold true for our global trading partners.

U.S. emissions declined 1.9% in 2023, according to Rhodium Group, and our economy produces fewer emissions during manufacturing than similar industries overseas. Yet foreign polluters with lower environmental standards can undercut U.S. manufacturers without penalty.

Some countries have begun the process of imposing a carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) to collect a fee at the border from high-polluting countries that undercut their domestic manufacturers with cheaper, carbon-heavy products. Legislation in Congress supported by Sen. Dick Durbin could be a first step in making foreign polluters pay in this country.

The PROVE IT Act recently passed by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee with a bipartisan vote of 15-4. The bill, S. 1863, would require the Department of Energy to study and compare the carbon emissions of products produced in the United States with imports. Sen. Durban is a co-sponsor of this important legislation, which is a first step in helping to ensure U.S. manufacturers that are lowering their carbon footprint don’t lose business to goods from polluting foreign manufacturers.

Putting a carbon border adjustment mechanism in effect in the U.S. will be a three-step process, with the first being what the PROVE IT act would task the Energy Department to do. The other two involve setting a carbon price on the excess carbon content of imports and then implementing the adjustments as goods come into the U.S.

Two other bills seek to address this issue. The Foreign Pollution Fee Act and the Clean Competition Act propose fees on key materials such as aluminum, cement, iron and steel based on their carbon pollution. These policies would level the playing field by charging importers for the difference between their high-emission products and our cleaner, domestic goods — and incentivize other countries to do better.

With a little compromise, legislators can introduce a bipartisan CBAM policy that appeals to both sides of the aisle.

When big polluters get a free pass to harm the planet, they take a toll on our well-being and on the health of our natural resources.

Joe Tedino, a Chicago communications consultant, is a volunteer with the nonpartisan, nonprofit Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

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