U.S. Already Halfway to 2020 Emissions Target

by Bill Chameides | September 24th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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A climate victory? U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2009 are projected to be almost nine percent below 2005 emissions.

Amid the furor over the Waxman-Markey climate bill (H.R. 2454) passed by the House in June, the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) quietly reported earlier this month that the United States has unintentionally taken a giant step toward meeting the 2020 emissions target set in Waxman-Markey.

CO2 Emissions on the Decline (for the Moment)

U.S. CO2 emissions in 2005 from fossil fuels: 5,972 tons

Projected U.S. CO2 emissions in 2009 from fossil fuels: 5,454 tons

Percentage of U.S. CO2 emissions projected for 2009 compared to 2005: – 8.7
How close this is to Waxman-Markey’s 2020 target: halfway

At the same time global CO2 emissions for 2009 are projected to be down as well. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that global emissions in 2009 will fall by 2.6 percent.

Clearly this unexpected emissions drop was not the result of a new technology or government policy but to the global economic downturn. OK, but what does it mean for future climate policy?

Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

Your view of this unexpected state of affairs will probably be depend upon whether you are a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty kind of person.

On the positive side, you might opine on what good news this is: “Wow, such a large drop without even trying! Getting to Waxman-Markey’s 17 percent target by 2020 should be a cakewalk. In fact, shouldn’t we now revise that target to an even larger reduction?” A proposal advanced, by the way, by Climate Progress.

On the negative side, you would probably note that the price of getting such a large drop in emissions was the Great Recession of 2009 — bank failures; decimated 401(k)s; national unemployment approaching 10 percent; and empty, foreclosed homes dotting neighborhoods nationwide. And now, you would ask, we are expected to double down on the recession to reduce emissions by twice as much as what we’ve done so far?

A Longer View Is in Order

I’m not sure which type of glass-viewer I am, but I am pretty sure that the virtual debate described above is misdirected. Conflating the economic downturn and long-term climate policy is a mistake.

In the first place the current dip in U.S. emissions as a product of the economic downturn is hopefully an aberration. All things being equal (e.g., in the absence of Waxman-Markey), emissions will begin their upward march as soon as the economic recovery takes hold. In fact the EIA projects a modest rise in U.S. emissions in 2010.

Secondly, don’t put the cart before the horse (or maybe don’t compare oranges and apples is more apt?). Just as climate science looks at long-term trends in temperature and other meteorological variables, climate policy must focus on the long haul, not on the vagaries of the economic cycle.

The scenarios being contemplated to meet greenhouse gas emission reduction targets involve the implementation of energy efficiencies and the rolling out of new technologies — in the case of bills like Waxman-Markey using market forces instead of government programs. And these scenarios envision this happening in a slow and measured pace over decades, designed to stimulate economic activity, and not through a sudden, disruptive economic collapse.

The dip in emissions from the economic collapse does have, in a sense, a “silver climate lining” in that it gives us a little more time to get our climate policies in place, but it is not part of a long-term solution to the climate problem.

Finally, this is no climate victory. Carbon dioxide concentrations continue to climb upwards. More importantly, our dependence on carbon-intensive energy sources is largely unabated. Until we address that fundamental problem, the ups and downs of the economic cycle will be just that, a roller coaster ride going nowhere.

filed under: carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, economy, energy efficiency, faculty, global warming
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1 Comment

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  1. Peter G
    Sep 24, 2009

    I recently came across a 40 year old paper written by Charles Keeling, from which I quote: “Our college students… today [1970]… will be the first generation to feel such strong concerns for man’s future that they will discover means of effective action… [T]hirty years from now, if present trends are any sign, mankind’s world… will be in greater immediate danger than it is today… [T]he people living then… may also face the threat of climatic change brought about by an uncontrolled increase in atmospheric CO2 from fossil fuels”.

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