Energy Revolution

Bye-Bye, Carbon: The U.S. Is (Slowly) Winning the Emissions War

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For environmental wonks like me, one of the biggest casualties of the government shutdown was the brief loss of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the invaluable federal agency that crunches detailed statistics on U.S. and international energy use. Thankfully the EIA came back online with the rest of the government last week, and today it released a new report finding that U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions declined by 3.8% in 2012 to reach the lowest level since 1994. Energy-related CO2 emissions are now down over 12% since the prerecession peak in 2007 — and remarkably, emissions have kept dropping even as the economy has continued to grow, albeit slowly:

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(MORE: The U.S. Is an Energy Superpower)

A few other takeaways from the EIA report:

  • Climate change may have helped reduce carbon emissions: About half of the overall decline in energy consumption came in the residential sector. And some of that decline was due to an incredibly warm winter in 2012, which led to a 22% reduction in cumulative heating degree days compared with 2011. Warmer weather means less demand for heating, which in turn reduces energy consumption — at least in the winter.
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  • Energy efficiency rules the day: The single biggest factor in the emissions drop was a more than 5% decrease in the energy intensity of the U.S. economy — the amount of economic value it gets per unit of energy. That’s largely about energy efficiency, as businesses and households reduce energy waste, though the long-term shift from energy-intensive manufacturing to an economy based around energy-light services and technology helps as well. Industrial output was 2.7% lower in 2012 than in 2007, and manufacturing output was 5% lower in 2012 than in 2007.
chart (2)

(MORE: The Renewable Boom)

  • More reasons to pay attention to carbon intensity: Another way to look at this critical metric is how much carbon dioxide is emitted per million dollars of economic value. Getting more energy-efficient and taking the carbon out of your energy supply — by switching to cleaner fossil fuels like natural gas or carbon-free sources like renewables or nuclear — reduces carbon intensity. According to the EIA, in 2012 carbon intensity fell to 389 metric tons per million dollars — the lowest level on record, going back to at least 1949.
chart (3)
  • Fracking is winning, and coal is losing: That’s the big story in U.S. energy generation, and it accounts for much of the fall in carbon emissions. The U.S. produced 215.2 billion kilowatt-hours less of electricity from coal in 2012 — and 211.8 billion kilowatt-hours more of electricity from natural gas, thanks chiefly to cheaper shale gas. Though experts disagree on the specifics, the Environmental Protection Agency calculates that natural gas has about half the carbon footprint of coal. More gas plus less coal equals less CO2.
chart (4)
  • We drove less and got more mileage when we did: I’ve written before that the U.S. may have already reached “peak drive,” as fewer and fewer people choose to drive regularly, and drive less when they do. Total vehicle miles traveled in 2012 were 3.3% lower than in 2007, and vehicle fleet efficiency is up 16% over those same years, thanks to tougher gas-mileage standards and persistently high fuel prices. Given that transportation is the second biggest source of CO2 emissions after industry, driving less and driving efficiently add up.
chart (5)

MORE: The Energy Revolution

6 comments
Rogerz
Rogerz

Does anyone have any information on what has happened to the CO2 levels in 2013?

Innocentious
Innocentious

Okay, so I have a couple of beefs with what you are writing. First the main reason CO2 emissions from the USA have gone down is that production has moved, for the most part to China, so unless you count energy expenditures of goods created FOR USA consumption, Second a weakening economy is going to drop in Carbon Usage as Carbon Usage is an indicator of progress within a society. 

Now some of the sectors like transportation have shifted, mostly due to Natural gas usage.

Finally I have been following the CO2 and 'Climate Change' debate for the better part of almost 30 years now. I am underwhelmed by it, nor do I feel that it is a crisis. The main reason for this is that there are a WHOLE slew of benefits that increased CO2 give as well as moderate increases in temperature. I do not doubt that the introduction of CO2 increases to a small degree the temperature, so please don't go there, but rather that the extremes predicted by a very vocal minority and the imagined damages that might occur are very overblown.

By the same token I hope that we can create efficient electrical motors, improve efficiency in solar panels, fix it so that wind turbines stop being a blight on the avian community and create a massive amount of energy to be harnessed cheaply and efficiently. 

dougn
dougn

If you want to see what's ahead in energy efficiency, check out 360 Power Group. The company has developed an electrical generator that uses 33% less fuel than conventional generators and is a quarter the size. As a motor, it will permit electric vehicles to travel 33% further than current motors and will eliminate mechanical transmissions. The commercial prototypes are being tested right now. This technology, in the words of engineers from the Los Angeles Dept. of Water & Power, "changes everything."

JiminyChristmas
JiminyChristmas

@Innocentious I agree with you that a lot of the US's CO2 emissions have simply shifted to China, but I don't agree with you that CO2 emissions are not a problem.  Going back to China, an entire city had to shut down for a day or two recently because of dangerous SMOG levels and SMOG is a persistent problem there.  It should be no surprise that in the case of concentrated SMOG, cancer rates go up while the ability for nature to effectively regulate the atmosphere goes down.

The only reason that we don't have as many dangerous SMOG issues in the U.S. is because we're more spread out.  However, that serves to mask the problem rather than reveal it.  I find it hard to believe that even though you can't SEE the problem in the US as visibly as you do in China, that it doesn't exist.  I think ALL states should employ yearly vehicle inspection programs and incentivize hybrid vehicle use.  Germany does this, and I didn't see as many issues with cars/trucks bellowing smoke in the three years that I lived there.  The recycling program is also much more robust, but that's another story.  In any case, for every one Prius that is currently on the road in the U.S., there are 100 other oil-burning/gas-guzzling trucks/SUVs/semis.  Obviously, something needs to change before we can begin to tackle this problem.

barneydidit
barneydidit

@Innocentious "Carbon usage is an indicator of progress within a society"? Only if your definition of progress is sticking with 19th and 20th century energy sources despite all of their drawbacks.

"Extremes predicted by a very local minority"?  "Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position."  Climate.nasa.gov

NealAngel
NealAngel

@barneydidit @Innocentious"Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities..."

Sounds like a toothpaste commercial. "Nine out of ten dentists recommend Crest." As a matter of fact, during a recent survey by the American Meteorological Society (AMS), the number of meteorologists & climate experts believing in anthropogenic warming was approximately 50%. The largest predictor for an individual survey participant's views was based on his political views. Go figure. http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/pdf/10.1175/BAMS-D-13-00091.1




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