Reducing Greenhouse Gases: The Vital Immigration Angle

By Steven A. Camarota November 1997

The San Diego Union-Tribune, November 28, 1997

President Clinton recently indicated that at the upcoming summit on global warming in Kyoto, Japan, he will propose reducing U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the year 2012, with further reductions in the future. As many commentators have already pointed out, this will likely mean some real sacrifices on the part of Americans, as we endure higher energy taxes, turn down our air conditioners and drive our cars less.

What has not been made clear to the American people, however, is that the amount of sacrifice Americans will have to endure depends heavily on our immigration policy. While a direct link between the emission of greenhouse gases and immigration policy may seem improbable at first, the connection is actually straightforward.

At present, immigration is running at records levels, with 1.2 million legal and illegal immigrants entering each year. Moreover, immigrants tend to have more children than natives. As a result, immigration causes the U.S. population to grow rapidly. The latest Census Bureau projections indicate that in the next 50 years, if the current level of immigration continues, there will be 80 million to 90 million more people living in the United States than there would have been with moderate immigration of 250,000 a year.

Since any treaty we sign to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases will limit total U.S. emissions, not per-person emissions, a larger population will require each individual to cut back more in order to keep total output at 1990 levels. It is not anti-immigrant to acknowledge this simple mathematical fact.

To see how this works, consider the following: if the United States agrees to limit its emission of greenhouse gases to 1.6 billion metric tons annually (the 1990 level), then the average American can produce no more than 5.3 tons of greenhouse gases if our population is 298 million in 2025, as it would be with moderate levels of immigration.

However, if the U.S. population grows to 335 million in 2025, as it is projected to do if current immigration trends continue, then per-person emissions will have to be cut back to 4.7 tons per year. Thus, in the next two decades, because of high immigration, each American will have to cut back 12 percent more on his production of greenhouse gases than would otherwise have been necessary.

Of course, other factors beside population size determine total U.S. output of greenhouse gases. New technologies and conservation efforts, for example, can reduce per-person emissions. However, the issue before us is how much pain do we want to endure as we purchase costly new technologies, turn down our heaters in winter and pay more for gasoline. The simple fact is high immigration will make any effort to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases more costly for the average American.

Not only does this situation have important implications for the standard of living in the United States, it may also adversely affect the competitiveness of U.S. industry.

Our primary economic competitors do not have to deal with rapid population growth as they seek to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases.

Japan's population, for example, is projected to grow from 125 today to only 126 million in 2025, and Germany's population is projected to actually shrink from 82 million today to 79 million in 2025. In fact, the United States is virtually the only major industrialized country that faces the task of cutting emissions while also dealing with rapid population growth.

It is also worth noting that because most immigrants come from developing countries, immigration has the effect of transferring population from the less-polluting parts of the world to the more-polluting parts of the world.

Thus, even if the highest priority is placed on reducing the emission of greenhouse gases worldwide, immigration is still counterproductive.

If not this year, then at some point in the near future the United States will undoubtedly sign a treaty to limit its output of greenhouse gases. In considering such a treaty, the American people need to understand what the current level of immigration means in terms of higher taxes on fossil fuels and other painful measures necessary to comply with whatever international commitments we make to deal with global warming.