Our Cup Runneth Over: U.S. Emissions Are Looking Up

by Bill Chameides | July 14th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 1 comment

The U.S. Energy Information Administration now projects a big uptick in America’s carbon dioxide (CO2)
emissions for 2010.

Source: U.S. EIA

Despite pledges of past presidents dating back to Jimmy Carter to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, America’s fossil fuel usage has steadily risen — and as a result, so have its emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

Between 1990 and 2008, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions increased by 13-15 percent [pdf], from about 6,100 to roughly 7,000 million metric tons of CO2 (or seven gigatons CO2-equivalent per year). By contrast, global greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use have increased by about 40 percent since 1990 (EPA 2010 [pdf], EIA 2010).

The increase in U.S. emissions since 1990 has occurred despite the fact that the “intensity” of America’s emissions (in terms of CO2 emissions per dollar of gross domestic product) has decreased by almost 30 percent during this time period. Thus, the inexorable tendency for industrialized nations to become more efficient and less carbon-intensive has slowed, but clearly not prevented, growth of U.S. emissions.

Some thought the election of Barack Obama and Democratic majorities in Congress would usher in a new era for climate change leadership in the United States — one that would see declining instead of rising greenhouse gas emissions. This new dawn would really break, hopes held, with passage of comprehensive climate legislation.

After all, Obama himself said his “presidency will mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process. That will start with a federal cap-and-trade system. We’ll establish strong annual targets that set us on a course to reduce emissions.”

Well, climate-related predictions were only partly right. Of course a climate bill has not passed out of Congress, but U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have declined anyway. Not because of anything our leaders did — or at least nothing they did intentionally — but because of the Great Recession of 2008. According to the EIA, the economic downturn that began in 2008 caused U.S. CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use to decrease by almost three percent in 2008 and by a whopping seven percent in 2009, bringing emissions to their lowest level since 1995.

Bottom line: By virtually all accounts, the economic downturn has been an unmitigated disaster, but arguably with one small silver lining — it put a halt to the seemingly inexorable rise in our greenhouse gas emissions and gave our leaders a little breathing room to get their act together and put policies in place to get emissions headed downward without a recession.

If the good news is that silver lining, the bad news is that the folks in Congress and the White House still seem unable to get off the dime when it comes to climate legislation. The brief respite in rising greenhouse gas emissions in the country may be ending, and we look to be headed back toward the tried-and-true, business-as-usual emissions scenario. The EIA predicts U.S. greenhouse gas emissions this year will increase by more than three percent and continue to climb for the rest of the decade.

But there is a bright side. A three percent increase is nowhere near large enough to be called a gusher. One of those a year is more than enough.

filed under: carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, economy, faculty, global warming, policy, politics
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1 Comment

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  1. Jim
    Jul 15, 2010

    I would love to have comprehensive climate/energy legislation to reduce pollution/CO2 and reliance on fossil fuels. I even recently wrote a letter to Senator Burr encouraging him to support climate legislation, for all the good that will do. Right now the only hope is to have a really watered down version of a bill, one that would have loopholes, which might be better than nothing, but not by much. So I’ve decide that I will continue to do what I can do in my household to reduce energy consumption, but that overall there won’t be any changes to the U.S. policies and I’m going to stop looking for a change. A couple of decades down the road things will get tougher for everyone, and maybe something will pass then, but by then we will have to endure conditions that will be tougher than today and will continue to deteriorate for some time. The only hope is that someone comes up with a new cheap, clean way of producing energy, but I’m not holding my breath.

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