Have U.S. CO2 Emissions Peaked (As We Predicted)? Breaking Down The Good And Bad Drivers

JR: Back in May 2009, Climate Progress predicted that U.S. CO2 emissions had peaked (see “I predict U.S. carbon dioxide emissions peaked in 2007!“). Of course, I had been thinking the U.S. would pass the Waxman-Markey climate and clean energy bill putting a price on carbon, “which will lead to steadily declining coal emissions.”

Ironically, one of the reasons I thought the U.S. would pass a climate bill is that, as I wrote the following month, “unconventional natural gas makes the 2020 Waxman-Markey target so damn easy and cheap to meet.” I didn’t imagine natural gas would become so darn cheap it would get us so far to the 2020 target without a carbon price.  I stand by my original prediction, “that U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will never exceed 2007 levels.”  I believe this country will have a carbon price within a decade, and maybe considerable sooner if we are homo “sapiens” rather than, say, brainless frogs.

Uber-blogger David Roberts has a chart-filled discussion of some key trends underlying the drop in CO2 emissions over the past 5 years — and why few folks outside of the blogosphere are talking about it. It is reprinted in full below with permission.

U.S. leads the world in cutting CO2 emissions — so why aren’t we talking about it?

By David Roberts, via Grist

Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. is making progress on climate change.

We have cut our carbon emissions more than any other country in the world in recent years — 7.7 percent since 2006. U.S. emissions fell 1.9 percent last year and are projected to fall 1.9 percent again this year, which will put us back at 1996 levels. It will not be easy to achieve the reductions Obama promised in Copenhagen — 17 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2020 — but that goal no longer looks out of reach, even in the absence of comprehensive legislation.

Why isn’t this extraordinary story a bigger deal in U.S. politics? You’d think Obama would be boasting about it! Turns out, though, it’s a little awkward for him, since several of the drivers responsible are things for which he can’t (or might not want to) take credit.

Awkward: that whole recession thing

First off there’s the Great Recession, which flattened electricity demand in 2008. It has never recovered — in fact, in part due to 2011′s mild winter, it has even declined slightly:

US electricity consumption, 2000-2011

For obvious reasons, boasting about the environmental benefits of the recession is not something Obama’s eager to do.

Awkward: frack-o-mania

The second big driver is the glut of cheap natural gas, which is currently trading at the 10-year low of about $3 per million British thermal units. This is absolutely crushing coal, the biggest source of CO2 in the electric sector:

The share of U.S. electricity that comes from coal is forecast to fall below 40% for the year, its lowest level since World War II. Four years ago, it was 50%. By the end of this decade, it is likely to be near 30%.

Here’s U.S. electricity generation from 2000-2012. Look how dramatic coal’s recent plunge is:

EIA: electricity generation by source, 2000-2012 

In April, coal and natural gas both contributed 32 percent to the U.S. electricity mix — equal for the first time since EIA started collecting data in the ’70s. This is, as Alexis Madrigal emphasizes, an extraordinary shift, unprecedented in the history of the U.S. electrical system.

It’s helpful to Obama to be able to point to cheap natural gas when people accuse his EPA of killing coal. And it’s helpful in his effort to claim “all of the above.” But fracking’s potential environmental and health impacts has quickly made it a flash point with his environmental base (and his Hollywood base), so it’s at the very least a fraught subject.

Awkward: Kenyan socialist EPA sharia tyranny

A less significant driver of the switch from coal to natural gas is the EPA’s long overdue rollout of new or tightened clean-air rules on mercury, SO2 and NOx, and CO2. Those rules may do more work later on down the line when/if natural gas prices rise again, but for now the best analysis [PDF] shows that natural gas is doing most of the work killing coal. Nonetheless, EPA regs have proven a source of potent right-wing attacks on Obama and he’s probably not eager to call undue attention to them.

Thus: silence in the political world

So: given the fact that the decline in emissions is driven, at least in the conventional narrative, by an explosion in fossil fuel production, a recession, and a series of EPA regulations, it’s not hard to see why Obama isn’t eager to put it front and center. It’s got a little something for everyone to hate.

And of course the right isn’t eager to talk about it either, since conservative dogma tells us that there’s no way to grow the economy and shrink CO2 emissions at the same time … and yet, uh, that’s what’s happening. At the end of 2012, our economy will be much larger than it was in 1996, yet its carbon emissions will be the same. If conservatives acknowledge that it’s possible to loosen the link between climate pollution and economic growth, they’ll have to explain why we shouldn’t do a whole lot more of it.

Still, while the story has remained largely sub rosa in political media, there are several overlooked details that paint a happier picture than the conventional one above. There’s more to this story than natural gas and recession.

Happy: Coal’s getting its ass kicked by activists

First, it isn’t just natural gas and EPA taking coal out — it’s the kick-ass anti-coal movement! Fighting tooth-and-nail, plant-by-plant, it has blocked new construction and shut down over 100 existing plants.

Beyond Coal: 112 down

The campaign has been so disciplined and successful that it’s drawn the support of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who does not typically invest his own money in feel-good symbolism. He expects accountability and he’s getting it. Like the man said, “Ending coal power production is the right thing to do.”

Happy: Clean energy is happening

Renewable energy still represents a small portion of U.S. electricity generation, but that fact obscures its outsized impact. The U.S. doesn’t need to add a ton of renewables for things to start shaking loose.

Here’s growth over the last decade:

EIA: renewable energy share, 2001-2011 

One thing that jumps out is that renewables are growing much faster in some places than others. South Dakota now gets 22 percent of its electricity from wind, Iowa 19 percent. The top two states in total installed wind are Kansas and Texas. The top two for wind jobs are Iowa and Texas. That’s three red states and a deeply purple one — a wedge separating clean energy from the climate culture wars. That portends accelerating changes in the political economy.

Also driving changes in political economy: 29 states and D.C. now have mandatory renewable energy standards.

FERC: renewable energy standards, 2011Installed wind and solar have doubled in the U.S. since Obama took office. Costs for solar are plunging like crazy and onshore wind power may be competitive with fossil fuels without subsidies by 2016. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory says the U.S. could get 80 percent of its power from renewables by 205o. Given that “official” projections of renewable energy growth have been consistently beneath the mark, it’s not unreasonable to think we may be underestimating future growth.

And renewables don’t have to get that big to start making waves. The sun shines most when the most electricity is being used — “peak demand” — so it serves to sharply reduce peak prices. Turns out that’s where utilities make a lot of their money. U.S. utilities are being forced to crank off coal plants when peak prices drop and then crank them back on afterwards.

It is no fun to turn coal plants on and off — it’s slow, laborious, and kills their economics. More and more, utility managers are turning toward upgraded, smarter grids and more flexible, responsive “mid-load” plants (i.e. natural gas). By hacking off peak prices, renewables will make the dynamics even worse for coal, well before they reach a large proportion of total electricity.

So renewables are a bigger part of this story than they appear, and getting bigger.

Happy: Demand is leveling off long-term

It’s not just the recession that’s bringing down U.S. energy demand — the leveling off of demand is a long-term trend. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects energy use will grow quite slowly through 2035:

EIA: energy demand to 2035And this is almost certainly conservative: EIA doesn’t model policy changes, underestimates the role of technology, ignores rising fossil fuel prices, and is incapable of predicting cultural shifts.

For instance, few projections anticipated the sharp decline in driving in the U.S., which has been driven (ahem) as much by cultural and demographic factors as by economics.

Or consider the dramatic progress in energy use in buildings, which was also not anticipated by EIA. From Architecture 2030 comes this graph, which compares the EIA Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) projections on U.S. building stock from 2005 with the ones from 2012:

EIA projections for building energy consumption, 2005 vs 2012The growth in U.S. building stock is slowing (in part — but only in part! — due to the recession), but growth in building energy consumption is dramatically slowing, thanks to advances in energy efficiency technology. EIA now expects CO2 emissions from the building sector to decline by 2035. That’s a pretty big change from going up by over 50 percent!

And that’s just with straight-line projections. If “best available demand technologies” are deployed, it looks like this:

EIA projections for building energy consumption, best available tech, 2005 vs 2012It’s within our reach to reduce the CO2 emissions of the building sector almost 22 percent! Given that building standards are one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement on energy these days, it’s not crazy to think that we’ll get closer to the latter projections than the former.

And the EIA projections for building energy consumption, Architecture 2030 notes, do not incorporate “sustainable planning applications or passive heating and cooling, natural ventilation, daylighting, or spatial configuration and site design strategies,” all of which are gaining in popularity and sophistication.

In short, there’s reason to think the demand-side story is similar to the supply-side story: official projections are dramatically underestimating potential.

Worry, but be happy

To sum up: yes, the explosive growth of natural gas and the Great Recession played a big part in U.S. climate emissions declining in recent years. And either of them could reverse in years to come. But they are not the whole story. There are real transitions underway — seedlings that can be watered and fertilized.

As Brad Plumer notes, America’s modest progress to date still leaves the world on a pathway to climate catastrophe. But it also shows that projections are not destiny. Things can change, and quickly.

David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. This piece was originally published at Grist.

Related Climate Progress Post:

30 Responses to Have U.S. CO2 Emissions Peaked (As We Predicted)? Breaking Down The Good And Bad Drivers

  1. Pagodroma says:

    And you just happened to forget the methane emissions from fracking? Not to mention the carbon emissions caused by US imports of goods from China?

  2. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe wrote: “some key trends underlying the drop in CO2 levels over the past 5 years”

    I think you mean the drop in CO2 emissions — CO2 levels have not dropped.

  3. Yeah, I was curious about this statement from Roberts: “To sum up: yes, the explosive growth of natural gas and the Great Recession played a big part in U.S. climate emissions declining in recent years.” This blog has argued that methane isn’t a fix, thought there is a case to be made that it is.( What’ the CP take on that question?

  4. M Tucker says:

    Savvy Republicans will us this to say we do not need big government to put a price on carbon, that market forces will do just fine.

    This report does not seem to mention the expiring incentives for wind and solar. How will that factor in?

    This is good news but I already knew that US emissions were down. But, as always, atmospheric concentrations are up. So good for the USA but not only is it tough for President Obama to brag about this but it also does not help to make the US an example for the world…other than to say: get crackin’ on the frackin’, allow your economy to crash, enjoy the unemployment because those guys don’t take vacations and struggle to heat and cool their homes, establish a kickass anti-coal movement, and pass tough regulations on coal power. I’m sure that China and India will happily go along.

    I am very pleased that energy efficiency in buildings has come so far, is expected to continue, and that is something we can be proud of.

  5. Jack Burton says:

    Much of the CO2 reduction in the USA has been to collapse of the US economy. Specifically the industrial economy, what has happened is much of the energy use in making the things of an industrial world has simply been shipped to China. China now burns the energy to produce America’s consumer goods. Simply look at the explosion of Chinese CO2 emissions. It is massive!
    By being so narrow minded as to paint the USA as a great carbon reducer is a joke, nobody with basic analytical ability is going to buy into this so called “happy news!”
    Shame on you! Global CO2 emissions are skyrocketing, just because America has transferred it’s industry off shore and has grown poorer does not mean a thing. Other nations burn fossil fuel to produce the goods that the USA used to produce.
    Does it really matter what spot on planet earth the fossil fuels are burned? It all goes into the same atmosphere and has the same effects. What counts is world CO2 production and it is decidedly UP!

  6. Gail says:

    M. Tucker points out that US emissions are down, but the concentration in the atmosphere continues to rise. As I wrote in a post, with links: The concentration in the atmosphere continues to climb at an accelerating rate. Think about that. The difference between June 2010 and June 2011 was an increase of 1.65 ppm, whereas the difference between June 2011 and this June, 2012, was 2.09 ppm.

    This is rather interesting because US emissions, for instance, are down 8% since 2006, partially due to the replacement of coal by “natural” gas for generating electricity (never mind what a bad idea that is from the perspective of air pollution, what with fugitive methane, which happens to be an ozone precursor). Also, the global economic downturn is now including China, where a surplus of coal and oil are clogging up storage. So why would CO2 concentrations be not only increasing but increasing faster ? Well, I suppose some might be increasing population but I suspect some of it has to do with vegetation photosynthesizing less, and thus absorbing less CO2. And so it’s going to get much, much hotter very quickly.

    From a research paper about trees damaged by ozone pollution: “This implies that a key carbon sink currently offsetting a significant portion of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions could be diminished or lost in the future.”

  7. Joe Romm says:


  8. Tami Kennedy says:

    What did I miss David Roberts?

    Are you there arguing globally U.S. is now not an issue to global requirements to prevent warming. Blaming BRIC for preventing global success? Or not factoring in auto carbon?

  9. Jack Burton says:

    Indeed! The rise and increased rate of rise in CO2 concentrations is pointing to possible feedback loops kicking in and CO2 sinks running out of capacity. I believe I have read that the oceans for example are losing some of their ability to keep soaking up carbon at the same rate.
    Forests under stress can cease to keep soaking up carbon at the same rate as well.
    The frightening thing is that vast increase in CO2 coming from non-USA sources and the weakening of traditional carbon sinks.
    Big trouble if this continues to worsen. Bigger trouble if methane releases continue to kick in.
    Note the heat wave in Greenland recently and the increased melting of permafrost in Canada, Alaska and Siberia. Vast methane stores on land and in the sea. This whole story could turn very ugly very fast, lets hope it really is a slow moving train wreck.

  10. Ken Barrows says:

    Not so fast on natural gas. It is possible that too many companies drilled. Rig counts have dropped quite a bit and prices have risen about 50% in the last couple of months. It may be necessary to have $7/mcf ng prices for companies to make a long term profit. Coal may not seem so dead in five years.

  11. Weird perspective in this posting.

    Following the EIA “leveling off” scenario cited would be a total climate disaster. So how does that scenario end up presented as a good thing?

    Ironic, DR, for a regularly excellent critic of slushy thinking to be so apparently caught up in providing a good news angle, that the factual basis is lost!

    Worthy of Revkin.

    Please redo.

  12. It seems that a lot of posters didn’t read DR’s conclusion: Worry, But Be Happy. Obviously the worry is the exportation of U.S. CO2 emissions to China and elsewhere, global CO2 levels climbing and so on. Points noted.

    But what Roberts is saying we can be happy about is that things can change, and quickly. Things might not change, but projecting “all glum all the time” will simply serve to dishearten.

    What really needs to change is U.S. consumption patterns, or, put more simply, U.S consumption — of all kinds, not just fossil fuels. So long as we’re buying crap, somebody will be making it — and emitting plenty of CO2e while they’re at it.

    But as Roberts said, driving is down, and not just because the price at the pump is up. Maybe people are finally realizing that cramming more junk into their houses is not making them happier, and will result in their kids being extremely unhappy.

  13. Paul Magnus says:

    Maybe Obama saw this coming and was just doing his diplomatic thing in trying to manoeuvre action on climate change in the right direction. And didn’t count on how difficult that would be.

    I have got my fingers cross that he will ‘come out’ in the next session because there really is no alternative.

    Always wondered why Holdren and Chu put up with this oblique approach. Maybe they know something we dont.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Now, now-don’t go ruining a ‘fell good’ story.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’m with you, Jack. I detect an effort to paint the Obama abomination in a rosy light.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    That’s all that is left-hope. Hope that things go slow enough to allow our broadcasts to reach a benign alien civilization who will come to our rescue, because Homo destructans has proven itself manifestly not up to the task of not committing suicide.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Be happy!-and turn out to vote for the Obamination of the Obama Administration.

  18. EmuBob says:

    I don’t see much reason for optimism. The progress reported is local and relatively small. I believe, reluctantly, that when concerted global action to reduce emissions is finally taken, it will be too late. If the present level of 392ppm gets us the extreme weather we are seeing now, not just in the US but around the world, what will 450ppm get us only 25 years from now in 2037?

    As far as I can see, we are headed for a Malthusian catastrophe before mid-century, when the rising population curve meets and then quickly exceeds steeply falling world food production caused by ecological collapse.

    The change necessary to mitigate this would require unprecedented cooperation amongst nations. If the last 20 years are anything to go by, the technology will exist but the political, economic, social and cultural inertia of human societies is too great for it to happen in the time required, if at all.

  19. Paul Young says:

    Ironically, if this was happening under a Republican president they would probably “take a lot of credit” for the emissions cuts.

  20. PeterW says:

    Exactly Jack, it should also be mentioned that Americans are burning a lot more oil and gasoline from the Tar Sands. But the CO2 created by production of this Tar Sands oil is all attributed to Canada even though 75% is used by the U.S.

  21. Paul Klinkman says:

    Where do I start?

    Natural gas lowers CO2 emissions but raises methane emissions. This might be good news 100 years from now when the methane is gone and the CO2 is still here, but right now we have an accelerating global natural methane release from dead forest decay, permafrost fires and so on, and fracking isn’t helping that one bit.

    Now we’re exporting mountains of coal to China, and China is of course sending back the CO2. Some victory!

    Clean energy is happening, but our anti climate science government is quietly trying to strangle innovation with its last dying breath. Given the national debt, that’s a pretty good description of the government.

  22. Dick Smith says:

    Now I understand why China under-reports its emission by 20%–because they’re really our emissions. Not only do we buy the imports we send them the coal to make our products for us.

  23. RevDuRite says:

    I’m new to this, so please forgive me if my questions reveal a more elementary ignorance:

    1) To what extent does the decline in U.S. emissions reflect, at least in part, structural trends in the energy intensity of Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, and Bangladeshi economies?

    2) To what extent do U.S. emissions figures include (or omit) emissions related to imports from economies increasing in energy intensity?

    Any insights would be much appreciated.

  24. Janine Perlman says:

    It’s nearly criminal NOT to put this “good news” in a global context, where its real significance is tragically small. As Bill McKibben demonstrates today, it’s nice, but insignificant.
    And since the decrease in U.S. emissions is unintentional—and our “leaders” refuse to take an opportunity when it’s dropped in their laps—we can’t even use it to persuade.

    Joe, I’m glad your prediction looks to be borne out. But please don’t lose sight of the bigger picture—even in your intro to one post.

  25. Spacermase says:

    Oh, you would be surprised. During WWII, most of the nations of the world came together very quickly, and very thoroughly. The U.S. complete remade its economy in less than 6 months. People can do amazing things in an incredibly short amount of time- provided they believe there is an immediate, existential risk.

    The challenging part is convincing the world that climate change actually is an immediate, existential threat.

  26. Donald Brown says:

    The article is welcome to the extent it is reviewing what is happening in the US but deeply problematic to the extent that it implies something to be happy about. The article fails to compare the reductions described against what the scientific community’s consensus position is on the magnitude of reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change. The Obama proposal in Copenhagen to reduce US emissions by 17% below 2005 is just 4% below 1990, the weakest of all developed country commitments and lamentably and irresponsibly below what is needed at the global scale to avoid the threat of 2 degree C. If one takes “equity” seriously under the UNFCCC, the US fair share would be substantially lower than global average needed to prevent dangerous climate change. Since the global emissions we need are somewhere between 25 and 40 % below current emissions by 2020, the US progress is a still a tragic, dismal failure. Being happy about the meager reductions we are seeing is in light of all of this potentially misleading. It is perfectly OK to note the reductions with interest, but irresponsible to claim that these reductions are a positive step without the context of the global situation and the 30 year failure of the US to commit to reduce emissions.
    Don Brown, Scholar In Residence, Widener School of Law

  27. Mulga,

    I like your politics, and your analysis is generally right on. But when it comes to presidential politics, at least this time around, we have four “choices:”

    1) Obama
    2) Romney
    3) The Perfect (Green Party candidate, etc.), otherwise known as “The Enemy of the Good.”
    4) Don’t vote.

    I know it sucks, but once again we have a choice of voting for Obama, who admittedly ain’t much of an environmentalist; voting for the Green Party candidate, which, in terms of determining who becomes President is the same as a not voting, or, worse, voting pro-Romney (because it takes a vote away from Obama); or just staying home.

    Just enough people stayed home or voted for Nader in 2,000 to allow Bush to “win” the election by what, a contested 57 votes? That really showed those Dems, didn’t it?

    I believe that if Gore had won, we would not have gotten involved in Iraq, and we would have started doing something about global warming and really boosting alternative energy a decade ago.

    I won’t bust my butt and my wallet for Obama as I did during the last election, but I’ll vote for him rather than risk four more years of Republican rule. Do you really want somebody in the White House who thinks that wind energy is a scam?

  28. question says:

    And why not? Would you prefer Romney to win? If so you truly hate my children. And yes, it is personal because there is no other option.

  29. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Agreed, Romney would be far worse. But Obama has been a big disappointment.

    I believed in yes we can. Not: we could as long as it’s not too hard.

    Not even a decent speach. Fear of the filibuster, should heve been get the filibuster on record.

  30. EmuBob says:

    Yes, humans have evolved to cooperate against external threats. But human history also a history of conflict over resources.

    I hope you are right for all our sakes but I am inclined to think that the coming global shortages of water and food will cause more conflict than cooperation. Whoever said that all politics is local was right. Politicians are answerable to their own constituencies not foreigners. This is a major hindrance to getting nations to agree on global issues. Climate change may not be a crisis yet but it is certainly extremely serious. And yet Rio was a total failure.

    I recommend Gwynne Dyer’s excellent book “Climate Wars” as one highly plausible look at what might happen.