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Return of the smog monster

I recently stumbled across the startling factoid that some 30% of the air pollution in California is imported from China. Ozone from overseas has reached 50 parts per billion in Los Angeles, putting the baseline dangerously close the 80 parts per billion considered harful to humans.

Via satellite, we can actually see the clouds of pollution drifting eastward. The problem is not limited to ozone, nor, for that matter, to China.

Mercury from factories in Asia rain down on the United States. Dust from the Sahara Desert clouds skies over Miami, and dust from the Gobi chokes the air in the Pacific Northwest. A plume of smoke from agricultural brush fires in Central America once closed an airport in St. Louis.

The U.S. is far from blameless. We send our emissions over to Europe, including a large dose of mercury from our own coal-burning power plants. More generally, the Western world has been busily moving factories to Asia for decades now, in a sense turning our emissions into their emissions.

Two things strike me about this issue.

The first is how truly irrelevant borders have become to large-scale environmental problems. Despite the fact that the U.S. has been successfully lowering many types of emissions for years, pollution drift threatens to erase many of the benefits of our progress. And global warming is entirely nonlocalized, so greenhouse gas emissions anywhere hurt us all equally.

The second is the powerful potential of market-based mechanisms to address these issues. One environmental expert suggested that U.S. money would better spent shipping pollution control equipment to China than in implementing here. Emissions markets allow just that sort of cross-border cooperation to take place in the most efficient way possible, and without the need for complex legislation. Capital flows across borders much more easily than laws do.

Of course, laws are needed to establish markets for pollutants. TerraPass customers are early pioneers in voluntary markets for carbon emissions, whether they even realize it. Hopefully governments will take a cue from their own citizens.

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