Climate

I predict U.S. carbon dioxide emissions peaked in 2007!

I am predicting that U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will never exceed 2007 levels.  We have peaked.

The United States appears to be in the process of breaking its long-standing link between economic growth and global warming pollution.  I am, of course, assuming in my prediction that the United States will enact into law serious energy and climate legislation, along the lines of Waxman-Markey, sometime soon.

What would have been almost impossible to imagine even a year ago is now, I think, a pretty safe bet thanks to a unique confluence of factors.  Indeed, the main reason I’m able to make this prediction with such high confidence is the Energy Information Administration’s remarkable, if little noted, report from last month, Updated Annual Energy Outlook 2009 Reference Case Reflecting Provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and Recent Changes in the Economic Outlook.  It was Figure 3 that blew me away:

Yes, the EIA itself, which is incredibly conservative from a forecasting perspective, doesn’t foresee CO2 emissions returning to 2007 levels until 2024!  But, of course, that post-2020 return to steadily rising emissions is exceedingly unlikely to happen — thanks to peak oil and action by President Obama and Congress on energy and climate legislation.

Remember, EIA only models the “no further energy and climate policy” case and the “no peak oil” case, so the only thing one can say for certain about an EIA forecast is that there is no chance whatsoever it will come true.  Indeed, the main drivers for the EIA’s latest forecast change are just:

The energy-specific provisions of ARRA [the stimulus bill] that were represented in some fashion in NEMS [the EIA’s major economic-energy forecasting model] include:

  • Weatherization and assisted housing
  • Energy efficiency and conservation block grant programs
  • State energy programs
  • Plug-in hybrid and electric vehicle tax credits
  • Updated tax credits for renewables
  • Loan guarantees for renewables and biofuels

Other major changes in NEMS to reflect changes in energy markets, laws, and
regulations since the development of the AEO2009 reference case include:

  • Update of macroeconomic assumptions
  • Update of near-term fuel price projections
  • Update of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.

But to give you an idea of the kind of forced myopia EIA has in its modeling, their analysis notes “wind capacity growth is projected to slow significantly after the expiration of the Federal tax credits in 2012.”  Yes, well, anyone want to bet me that the wind tax credit will be allowed to expire permanently in 2012 as EIA models?  Didn’t think so.

And, of course, the EIA simply does not accept the reality of peak oil.  They project that in 2020, imported crude oil will cost $114.50 a barrel and gasoline will cost $3.62.  In 2030, crude oil will cost $124 a barrel and gasoline, $3.82.  All figures are in 2007 dollars.  Hope springs eternal, even for the green eye shades at EIA.  In the real world, however, for oil to be significantly below $200 a barrel and gasoline to be significantly below $5 a gallon in 2020 would take a miracle “” or rather 6 miracles see “Science/IEA: World oil crunch looming? Not if we can find six Saudi Arabias!” and “IEA says oil will peak in 2020“).  See also “Merrill: Non-OPEC production has likely peaked, oil output could fall by 30 million bpd by 2015“).

I think that peak oil plus inevitably stronger and stronger action on fuel economy standards, tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions, plug in hybrid electric vehicles, and low-carbon fuel standards will keep oil consumption trends flat for quite some time, followed by a steady decline post-2020ish.

And of course I am assuming in my prediction that the United States will enact into law serious energy and climate legislation, along the lines of Waxman-Markey, sometime soon, which will lead to steadily declining coal emissions post-2015.

So you see, what looks like a bold prediction is not terribly bold at all.  I think this is much more of a sure thing than, say, my standard bet that the Arctic will be 90% ice free by 2020.

Still, it would be a very big deal for the richest country in the world, the one with by far the greatest cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, to break the economic growth – carbon dioxide link.  And assuming that as many conservatives vote for comprehensive energy and climate legislation as voted for the clean energy stimulus bill, this achievement will be due primarily to the American public, progressive politicians, and, of course, the large and growing clean energy private sector.

20 Responses to I predict U.S. carbon dioxide emissions peaked in 2007!

  1. Mark Shapiro says:

    None of us like to engage in wishful thinking, yet many have worked for exactly this change in direction. We know it must happen, and that it cannot happen too soon. And when it does, it will be very big news, even though it cannot be confirmed for a long time.

    This could be it, Joe: The Big Turn.

  2. Carlin says:

    Joe,
    I’ll put it on the table: I bet the arctic will be ice free by summer 2015. Maybe even sooner!.. It’s good news that our CO2 emissions have probably already peaked, but now we need to apply even harder pressure. It’s times like these that I wish I had learned Chinese.

  3. Seth says:

    Do you have a ballpark estimate on when 1990 emissions levels will be seen again?

  4. Dan B says:

    Joe;

    Thank you for marking a turning point.

    Whether or not it’s the one we need – assuring survival of the human species for 5 or 10 decades…

    Or less, as Climate and Arctic Ice researchers in my neighborhood hold their breath. Will the Arctic be ice-free this summer? Will the expanse of dark Polar water heat up enough to warm eastern Siberia’s Tundra or the shallow shelves of the Arctic Ocean?

    Either one pumps enough Greenhouse Gases into the atmosphere to cook (or drown) most of us.

  5. ken levenson says:

    it’s great to hit the summit – now we need to climb back down faster than the melting ice or there is no way home….

  6. Moukmouk says:

    U.S. emissions peak ? good news. Hope that is not to late. the permafrost liquifie and produce so much CH4 that the heating machine may be going faster and faster

  7. Leland Palmer says:

    Great news.

    Probably not quantitatively big enough to stop runaway global warming, though. The Chinese are building something like a coal fired power plant every week, possibly knowing that there will be a ban on such plants in the future.

    The richest country on earth needs to lead the way to negative emissions, rather than stopping the growth of positive emissions.

    We need to seize the coal fired power plants, and convert them immediately to biocarbon fuel, oxyfuel combustion, a HiPPS topping cycle, and carbon capture and sequestration. Doing this would transform them into practical carbon negative power plants with thermal efficiencies equal to or greater than existing coal fired power plants, which pay for their carbon capture and storage with increased thermal efficiency over existing power plants.

    The coal power industries will tell us that this is not possible, or suggest through their astroturf organizations and sponsored think tanks that this is too expensive to be practical.

    This is not the case. We can still seize these power plants, and lead the world into negative emissions.

    Carbon negative power ideas can “put the carbon genie back into the bottle”, as Read and his collaborators have pointed out for years:

    http://www.etsap.org/worksh_6_2003/2003P_read.pdf

    Check out Figure 3, which shows that an emergency “Manhattan Project” style carbon negative program could actually reverse atmospheric carbon concentrations, getting back to preindustrial levels of CO2 by roughly 2050.

    Even if natural carbon sinks, like the permafrost, start to release increasing amounts of methane, we still may be able to hold even or even decrease global heating with carbon negative energy ideas.

    Without a massive and immediate carbon negative program, though, we are toast, IMO.

    Peaking U.S. positive emissions is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, Joe.

    Good news, though.

    Just not enough good news, I think, and too late to matter much, sad to say.

  8. Focusing on the good news has tremendous effect on morale! You made my day to write this, Joe!

  9. David says:

    Two questions. Are those CO2 emissions only for energy production that occurs within the United States or does it include CO2 emissions in other countries from energy generation that is being used to make products or provide services for the U.S. economy? If it doesn’t include those, have those peaked as well, or will they keep growing?

  10. paulm says:

    Thats great news!

  11. Greg N says:

    My personal CO2 emissions have peaked. I can’t see them ever reaching 2007 levels again, unless I suddenly start taking multiple long haul flights a year.

    I wish I’d recorded my personal electricity/natural gas/petrol consumption each year for the past couple of decades – that would make an interesting graph!

  12. This makes me want to queue up the theme song to Team America: World Police.

    Someone please ‘green’ the lyrics to that classic Lee Greenwood track, but quick. This movement needs its anthems, and so far Neil Young isn’t cutting it.

  13. Rick Covert says:

    Joe,

    Your book “Hell and Highwater” came out around ’07. I know it is 20/20 hindsight now but when you wrote it you proposed several scenarious about future climate around the assumption that CO2 levels would drop by the mid 20 teens, by 2030 and business and usual if I recall correctly. (It’s been over a year since I read the book and I guess I need to read it again) So where does this put us with respect to CO2 reduction? Are current reductions, assuming a meaningful carbon cap and trade bill is passed, giving us an unexpected good start we can build on or does is the business as usual scenario still the most powerful outcome?

  14. Alex J says:

    Thanks for bringing that up, David. In these discussions, people often neglect to consider the globalized nature of today’s economy. If Americans are demanding ultra-cheap stuff from China, then the coal being used to manufacture it becomes at least partly our responsibility, does it not? Even if it is “outsourced” pollution and doesn’t show up on our official carbon budgets. It’s good news that CO2 output within our borders may not exceed that of 2007 (assuming the aforementioned action is taken, and we don’t start binging on coal and Canadian tar). But we also have a responsibility to help and/or prod the developing nations that have supplied cheap goods to our economy.

  15. Jim Beacon says:

    Um, you’re confusing me here. The chart and info in this article doesn’t come close to matching that of the chart you published just the other day from the World Resources Group on the Waxman-Markey results, which shows 2007 U.S. emissions of CO2 at about 7200 metric tons, not 6000 as shown here. And it also projects that emissions will continue to rise to 7500 metric tons in 2012 when Waxman-Market, if passed as is now, only just starts. With any luck we *may* peak in 2012 at 7500 metric tons, but it could easily go up to 8000 before the Waxman-Markey provisions really start working See the chart in your own article at:

    http://climateprogress.org/2009/05/10/waxman-markey-2020-ghg-cuts-wri/

    [JR: Apologies for the confusion. W-M projection is based on an EPA analysis using old EIA projections. This chart above is more recent — it’s based on an EIA update from April that incorporates the economic slowdown and the stimulus.]

  16. MarkB says:

    Keep in mind that much of the drop in 2008 was due to the global recession and sky-high energy prices through most of the year. But gains in renewable energy, efficiency, and the slowing of coal plant construction is helping. I hope this is the turning point.

  17. Jim Beacon says:

    Well, now we’re just speculating… juggling with many still-unknowns of the global recession and how long it might last. If it lasts until 2012 when Waxman-Markey kicks in, then we may well have hit a peak for U.S. emissions of CO2 back in 2007 (at whatever level it really was, apparently somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 million metric tons). But, if as publicly predicted by the Obama administration just yesterday and by many on Wall Street, the recession “begins to turn around” by the end of this year, then we could quickly find ourselves back on track to hit 8,000 million metric tons before Waxman-Markey begins to take effect in 2012. In fact, this seems to be the real reason behind setting 2012 as the take-effect date for Waxman-Markey: They want to give the economy a free pass on emissions for the next 3 years to “help it recover”. More “art of the possible” dilution, more costly delay… No, I’m afraid I just don’t see any real reasons to think 2007’s level (whatever it turns out to have been) will be the peak. It could easily end up being much higher.

    Of course, all this ignores the very real possibility that the conservatives actually could manage to take back Congress in 2012… maybe even the White House, who knows? If that happened, does anyone doubt that their first order of business would be stop as much of Waxman-Markey as possible dead in its tracks? This is just one reason why I object to delaying W-M’s effective date until 2012. It should go into effect on January 1, 2010. No more screwin’ around.

    [JR: Uhh, you have forgotten the stimulus, which pushes a staggering amount of renewables into the market.]

  18. Cait says:

    For a moment there I thought you meant globally.

    I was wondering if it had all got to you a little bit too much ;)

    Regardless: here’s hoping you’re right.

  19. Itchy says:

    I’m really not sure how Peak Oil = lower CO2 emissions.

    Peak Oil will eventually result in either Americans give up thier cars, or more coal burning.

    Regardless of new laws, my bet is on the coal.