EIA Stunner: Energy-related CO2 emissions are now down nearly 10% from 2005 levels. Can’t this country manage another 7% drop in 10 years?

Clean energy leads the way

EIA CO2 2009

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) just issued its must-read report on U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions in 2009.  It turns out energy-related CO2 emissions have dropped faster than EIA had expected just a few months ago (see my September post, “EIA stunner: By year’s end, we’ll be 8.5% below 2005 levels of CO2 “” halfway to climate bill’s 2020 target“).

Surely this country could reduce CO2 emissions a little more than 7% in 10 years and meet the modest target set out in the Senate climate bill, which appears likely to be introduced next week.  It really isn’t bloody hard (see Game changer part 2: Unconventional gas makes the 2020 Waxman-Markey target so damn easy and cheap to meet).

Yes, a part of the recent drop in CO2 is due to the recession, but actually that was only just a piece.  Other key factors including low natural gas prices, gains in efficiency, state renewable energy standards, and a clean-energy-friendly stimulus (see “EIA projects wind at 5% of U.S. electricity in 2012, all renewables at 14%, thanks to Obama stimulus!“).

The EIA has a very interesting figure that examines all the key factors and shows GDP drop is only about a third of the reason:

Yes, some of the energy intensity drop is the increasing shift toward a service sector economy, but much of it is the gain in efficiency as a result of the recent energy price spikes coupled with what many think is the beginning of a permanent shift in petroleum consumption in transportation — a shift that is likely to be accelerated as concerns about peak oil turn out to be accurate (see Deutsche Bank: Oil to hit $175 a barrel by 2016 and World’s top energy economist warns peak oil threatens recovery: “We have to leave oil before oil leaves us”).

What caused the carbon intensity drop?

Across all sectors of the economy, decreasing consumption of carbon-emitting fossil fuels resulted in both a lower carbon intensity and lower absolute emissions.  Emissions from coal dropped 12.0 percent, petroleum emissions were down 5.3 percent and natural gas emissions were down 1.6 percent.  Non-fossil fuel consumption, on the other hand increased about 2 percent.

The fuel mix and associated carbon intensity of most sectors have tended to be very stable over time.  However, in 2009, the carbon intensity of the electric power sector decreased by nearly 4.3 percent, primarily due to fuel switching as the price of coal rose 6.8 percent from 2008 to 2009 while the comparable price of natural gas fell 48 percent on a per Btu basis.

Natural gas and renewables are a potent combination.  Recent studies make clear even a very modest (rising) price for CO2 will continue this trend, steadily shutting down dirty, inefficient coal plants over the next couple of decades.

Over the past decade, it was wind power that lead the way in delivering carbon-free electricity to the utility sector:

EIA itself concludes:

… longer-term trends continue to suggest decline in both the amount of energy used per unit of economic output and the carbon intensity of our energy supply, which both work to restrain emissions.

The argument that a climate bill with the kind of modest targets now being considered would hurt the economy is clearly absurd.

The time to act was a while ago, but there is no longer any excuse for inaction now.

30 Responses to EIA Stunner: Energy-related CO2 emissions are now down nearly 10% from 2005 levels. Can’t this country manage another 7% drop in 10 years?

  1. Kelly Brady says:

    Study links droughts with increased emissions. Like the 2010 drought in Nashville.
    Blame Bush for the drop in emissions.

  2. JR,

    This post is great news and makes me say out loud, “We told you so!” to those that think we will “ruin the economy if we limit carbon emissions.”

    Scott A. Mandia, Professor of Physical Sciences
    Selden, NY
    My Global Warming Blog

  3. fj2 says:

    Yeah. It’s been reported that during the 1970s energy efficiency went up and emissions dropped by about 40% if I am not mistaken.

  4. Leif says:

    It is droughts in drought prone areas but more accurately it is extremes in weather anomalies the world over. Higher temperatures have increased atmospheric moisture by ~3.5% which equates to the volume of water in Lake Superior. i.e. more rain to fall in the warm months but snow in the cold months. In addition There is extra energy to disrupt weather patterns and intensify weather changes. You have seen nothing yet. These anomalies are representative of climatic instabilities manifested 30 years ago because of the lag time in climatic response.
    And yes, Bush and folks like you, Kelly Brady, set the Nation back many years on our quest for sustainability. Hopefully we have not stepped across the door step of doom already.

  5. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Whether the US achieves a further 7% cut by 2020, or 27% for that matter, surely depends on whether Obama finds a reason to stop sitting on his hands and instead provides clear public education on the predicament and strong leadership in executive and legislators’ decision-making.

    The question of why he is not already doing so is thus central to finding ways to get him energized. Neither corruption, nor plans for a single-term presidency nor incompetence fit the man as explanations of his inaction –
    nor does a hope of generating bipartisan public will for the necessary sea-change to avoid future GOP majorities overturning any advances – establishing that bipartisan public will requires precisely the public education he witholds –
    nor can it be explained as just trimming to the right for the sake of a second term – the young activists and voters who were pivotal in his election are being badly disillusioned by his inaction.

    The lack of action is too pronounced and has lasted too long to be merely timidity – it is lousy politics and there has to be some pressing covert rationale for it – one that cannot even be hinted at by the administration. If that rationale can be identified then perhaps ways round it can be found to allow him to provide the leadership required.

    Clearly, if the current presidential disengagement continues, then it is not only the 7% cut by 2020 that is questionable, it is also the re-election of a democrat president post 2012 that is put in doubt.

    This is not of course to say he has done nothing so far towards renewable energy, energy efficiency and green issues – rather it is to observe that he has done scarcely anything commensurate with the scale of the predicament we face.

    Identifying the rationale for his inaction thus becomes a critical goal.



  6. From Peru says:

    10% reduction is good …
    …but much more drastic reductions are needed to prevent Hell and High Water!

    That is, little is better than nothing but what is needed is a plan to reduce emissions by 80% in the next 20 years.

    [JR: That’s what the bill is designed to do.]

  7. From Peru says:

    The bill could achieve an 80% reduction?

    This bill, or a bill “version 2.0”?

    [JR: This bill.]

  8. From Peru says:

    “Surely this country could reduce CO2 emissions a little more than 7% in 10 years and meet the modest target set out in the Senate climate bill, which appears likely to be introduced next week”

    If this bill will “reduce CO2 emissions a little more than 7% in 10 years” how could it reach the target of 80% reduction in 20 years?

    70% reductions between 2020 and 2030. How colud it be done by a bill that just reduce 10% emissions between 2010 and 2020?

  9. MarkB says:

    “If this bill will “reduce CO2 emissions a little more than 7% in 10 years” how could it reach the target of 80% reduction in 20 years?”

    The 80% goal is generally for 40 years. As I understand it, the current weak 2020 goal bouncing around the U.S. Congress is a 17% reduction from 2005 levels. Since emissions are already 10% lower than 2005, only 7% more is needed to reach that goal.

    I personally believe the 10-year goal might be met even without specific carbon pricing. Investments at the state and more now at the national level in low carbon solutions and incentives, along with a robust and developing energy efficiency program is going a long way. Many permits for new coal plants are being denied or delayed.

    Beyond 2020, I think having a framework of carbon pricing is needed to meet the more significant goals.

  10. JohnD says:

    I love this website, but I don’t think we should be letting this bill be framing the way we talk about the issus; 17% by 2020 is not acceptable, and minimalist arguments aren’t going to get us to a solution.

    [JR: Yes, well, this bill is infinitely superior to no bill. It would, among other things, enable a global deal.]

  11. Wit's End says:

    I think this is a rather murky area and not at all clear what conclusions should be drawn.

    For one thing, if you google “CO2 levels rise despite economic recession”, you will get scads of links. Of course, levels aren’t exactly the same as emissions, but that brings you around to Monbiot’s article, about the outsourcing of emissions: and raises the issue that perhaps the method of calculation in the UK is being replicated in other developed countries.

    But to get back to the rising levels, and purely speculatively…perhaps the CO2 sinks are overflowing? Those being:

    1. the oceans and

    2. the forests, which are being cut and burnt, and also, dying from toxic greenhouse gas emissions (ozone).

  12. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    JohnD – Well said.

    Given that the rest of the world has not followed Obama’s lead in adopting the 2005 baseline, (which was invented for Bush when he reneged on the US signature of the UNFCCC mandate with its 1990 baseline), they see 17% off 2005 as 3.67% off 1990.

    That 3.67% cut is less than one tenth of what is needed for the US to play its part in the world getting on track for the ‘aspiration’ to a (clearly inadequate) global 50% cut off 1990 by 2050.

    Thus it is likely that if and when Obama switches to policies taking the climate issue as seriously as it plainly warrants, one of the signals will be the restoration of the 1990 baseline in US politics and discourse.

    Meanwhile the 17% off 2005 rhetoric acts as a convenient veil hiding the Whitehouse’s current poverty of ambition on the Climate issue from most of the American public.



  13. Jeff Hopkins says:

    Great news! I like how the terms of the conversation are changing.

    Nobody’s seen the bill so we can’t say for sure, but i bet it targets an 80% reduction by 2050, not 80% by 2030. That goal is typically expressed for the country (alternatively, the carbon-regulated part of the economy) as a whole, but in order to reach that in aggregate the power sector has to more than pull its weight, in practical terms decarbonize completely. Natural gas, less emitting than coal but still too much CO2 to make my math work out right without capture.

    Also, the EIA graphic’s red bar, the energy intensity of the economy, confuses me though – it combines the temporary impact of the recession on the manufacturing part of the economy with the permanent impact from low-carbon technology investment – and requires further decomposition before I am convinced that the red wedge and a big chunk of the green wedge (and therefore more than half of the total) is only a temporary reduction.

    My take-away is that without strong policy direction (demand destruction doesn’t count as strong policy direction) we will never invest in low-carbon energy fast enough to take us where we have to go. Who will develop the low-carbon technology we need without willing buyers? Who would be a willing buyer without a price signal that indicates a payoff to an investment?

  14. EricG says:

    Lewis, I must take issue with your rant about President Obama’s performance, especially regarding efforts to reduce GHG emissions. The idea that our President can “educate” the American electorate into embracing an increase in energy costs is almost as silly as the idea that he can twist Senators’ arms into supporting a tax increase to stop AGW. And you can bet your bottom dollar that’s the way the American public will perceive the effort.

    Didn’t you learn anything from watching the health care rumble? All of us have experienced up close and personal disappointments with the health care system, and it was all we could do to squeeze out a bill that the R’s would have loved 15 years ago. In six months the Dem’s are going to get their butts kicked for trying to save America from a meltdown of the financial system, stimulate the economy, and stop runaway health care costs. No President has ever had a bully pulpit big and strong enough to move the American public on this issue.

    Waxman-Markey passed the House on June 26 219-212, the same vote that carried health care reform. Let’s see … can you think of anything important that has happened since then that might create a problem in the Senate? Perhaps the oil spill will wake up the public. Maybe the coal mining deaths will help them see where we are headed. And who knows, maybe two attempted terrorist attacks in 2010 will make people worry enough to seriously take on our oil addiction. I rather doubt it. I wish I could see a happy ending, but I don’t see a cost of carbon coming out of Congress anytime soon.

  15. paulm says:

    Holland spends 70 percent of GNP is produced in protected areas that are below sea level.

  16. Barbara says:

    Kelly – I can’t find the article you are referring to on the page you linked . . . . Living in Nashville I was very interested – could you update your link? The biggest connection I can imagine between drought and energy usage is the approximately 19% of energy used to clean and distribute potable water that is then used to excessively water lawns. If we could reduce the amount of potable water used for things that don’t require potable water we would make huge progress in reducing our energy usage.

  17. Chris Dudley says:

    It is worth noting that much of the the increase in nuclear power generation is part of the NRC’s run-to-failure approach to nuclear safety. Less time is given to preventative inspection and maintenance during refueling so that the plants can operate sooner. Plants are also run beyond their design power rating in a sort of ‘let’s try it and see’ experiment. This, as population density has increased around decrepit plants that have been granted licenses to operate long past their design lifetimes. This is false growth that one increasingly likely nuclear accident will more than just erase.

  18. Rockfish says:

    It’s amazing how well reductions correlate with recessions! [begin sarcasm] Now all we need is another decade of severe recession and we’re good! Maybe an “economy-crippling energy tax” is the way to go after all? [end sarcasm]

    [JR: What are you saying?]

  19. John Redford says:

    People seem to be pinning a lot of hope on increasing the cost of CO2 emissions via cap-and-trade allowances, but it looks to me like the price of fossil fuels varies far more widely just because of random market swings. This post mentioned that the price of natural gas was just cut in half. Adding a 5% charge on top of that for an allowance is in the noise. Likewise the domestic price of a barrel of oil went from $92 in 2008 to $54 in 2009. How can some small addition due to an allowance affect the consumption? Coal just went up 7%, much more than what these bills envision.

    If cap-and-trade is to have an effect, the increases it causes ought to be comparable to the existing price swings.

  20. Dorothy says:

    I’m a day late, as usual, so don’t know if anyone will see my comment, but I do want to thank Joe and the Fates for this good news. It would be interesting to see a world-wide report, however, which might explain why CO2 emissions have risen globally to above 391 ppm.

    Some legitimate red flags have been raised. “From Peru” #6 asks:

    ‘10% reduction is good …… but much more drastic reductions are needed to prevent Hell and High Water!
    That is, little is better than nothing but what is needed is a plan to reduce emissions by 80% in the next 20 years.’

    #6 may well be thinking that these Climate bills, both House and Senate, are referring to the standard Kyoto baseline using 1990 levels, when in truth the bills move the goalposts to 2005 levels. So 20% by 2020 really equates to about a 4% reduction.

    As for “little is better than nothing,” we already have a substantial tool in effect. And that’s the power of the EPA to regulate emissions, which we would lose if the Senate climate bill passes.

    There will be truck-loads of money delivered to the Goldman Sacks and their like if the Senate bill passes. Environmentalists should be reading “Thirteen Bankers.” Especially Chapter 4, “Greed is Good.”

    We have to stop feeding these monsters; the Kerry/Lieberman bill would throw them more thick, juicy steaks of tax-payer money to devour.

  21. Jim Edelson says:

    This drop is CO2 is excellent news. It demonstrates that states and localities, and now with the financial resources and some regulatory support of the federal government, the US is structurally changing its energy economy.

    Joe identified the one significant value of the federal legislation – enabling a global deal.

    But the tradeoffs with state and local authority are critical here. It may be better to work with what authority and movement we have now, get some more important federal efficiency legislation in place, and come back in one or two years before we trade away the hole card for a bill that is mostly an exemption for the transportation sector and a delay for stationary sources.

    I think Kerry and Lieberman are going to have to demonstrate that their bill will lead to measurable improvement over the current trajectory before it will have grassroots support nationwide.

  22. RockandorRoll says:

    @ Dorothy – 391 ppm is not the emissions level, rather it’s the atmospheric concentration of CO2 that results from emissions. Last estimate I saw from IEA was that energy-related CO2 emissions would fall about 3% in 2009, down from around 29 billion metric tonnes.

  23. Michael Tucker says:

    I just wonder how much of this is due to the recession. We need to plan for reductions in CO2 even during economic expansion.

    [JR: Uhh, that’s what this piece explains. One third is the answer. Go to the original EIA analysis if the figure is unclear.]

  24. John Hirsch says:

    As Dorothy tried to point out – despite whatever small positives seem to be happening, the fact is the atmospheric CO2 level just keeps going up and up. I look monthly at for a reality check – 391.06 ppm at the end of march – all time AGW record and climbing unabated each month – so based on real observations, we are not making any progress at all!!

  25. Thanks for an interesting post. I wonder, though, whether the total effect of the recession is somewhat larger than the decrease in GDP. The EIA figures show that energy consumption in some industrial sectors, such as primary metals, decreased more than in others. I would imagine that these are also the sectors most sensitive to economic upturns and downturns.

    Johannes Urpelainen

  26. Thanks for an interesting post. I wonder, though, whether the decrease in energy intensity is also related to the recession. Some of the sectors that reduced their energy consumption, such as primary metals, appear to be those that are particularly sensitive to economic upturns and downturns. Thus, their energy consumption might also increase rapidly if the economy recovers.

    Johannes Urpelainen

  27. Doug Bostrom says:

    Anna Haynes says: May 6, 2010 at 12:52 am

    That article rates an “Oh, my goodness.” Ouch.

  28. Sid Abma says:

    To reduce CO2 emissions, Increased Natural Gas Energy Efficiency also needs to be included. Today anywhere from 20% to 65% of almost all of the natural gas consumed, is wasted. It is being blown up chimney’s from government and industry and building owners, as HOT exhaust into the atmosphere. This is a lot of wasted energy!
    The technology of “condensing flue gas heat recovery” is designed to recover most of that wasted energy.Properly applied can bring the appliances energy efficiency to well over 90%.
    The US DOE states that for every million BTU’S recovered from these waste exhaust gases, and this recovered energy is utilized back in the building or facility, 118 lbs of CO2 will NOT be vented into the atmosphere.
    Conserving water is equally important.
    Coal when combusted, leaves ash to be disposed of.
    Oil leaves soot.
    Comusted natural gas leaves WATER, and this water can be used for a number of different purposes.

  29. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    EricG –

    Neither of my posts above was about Obama’s lethargy on the climate issue per se;
    the first was looking for an unrecognized reason for his lack of involvement –
    – in sixteen months in office I’ve counted fewer than sixteen sentences from him on the issue that were audible to the US public –
    and the second addressed the fact of his having, gratuitously, adopted the 2005 baseline (reflecting Bush’s reneging on the US signature on the UNFCCC mandate), with a view to raising awareness that the senate bill offers the world only a derisory 3.67% cut off the legal 1990 baseline.

    Your apologia for Obama’s dismal output so far is touching, but scarcely convincing. He has options that are blithely ignored, such as putting the issue into its moral context for the US public to hear, alongside the conventional rationale for action for prudent national self-interest’s sake.
    As yet the moral case has not been aired, neither by major NGOs nor even by Kerry or Gore, and the US public are historically very receptive to the idea of doing what is right, particularly if that is described by a world-class speaker – such as Obama.

    That moral case is not complex: at present, the US is set to bear lead responsibility for causing the greatest genocide by serial famines that the world has ever seen. – Intensifying global climate destabilization is already affecting food production, particularly that of poor subsistence farmers, and a around billion people are already hungry with food priced out of their reach.

    US action to address that prospect is sorely needed, but is blocked by corrupt denialism – that is wide open to ridicule for its wild conspiracy theories, and to stringent censure for its corrupt funding of propaganda that is directly against the interests of the American people. Obama could very easily make hay with them if he chose.

    The public also need to know that the scale of emissions cuts required is around 40% off 1990 by 2020; somewhat over ten times the current goal, but it can be stated plainly that America would neither be alone nor leading at that level – Britain, for instance, has pledged 30% unconditionally and 42% if other nations will follow suit.

    In terms of legislation, following a steady intensive campaign of public education, were a serious carbon price/GHG cuts bill to be voted down – as is only currently predictable – he has sufficient power via the EPA and other agencies to instigate sweeping change – not least via the displacement of much coal power by (now-idle) gas power stations.

    In my view Obama’s lack of action despite all these and other options needs investigation, not hasty apologia on notional grounds of incapacity.

    As Joe Romm put it succinctly a few days ago:
    “Bottom line: Leaders lead. They seize opportunities to galvanize the nation toward a better future. Or they don’t”