Historic Drop In U.S. Carbon Emissions: Is This Real ‘Weight’ Loss, Or Just A Fad Diet?

Every year, Americans are inundated with new fad diets and weight-loss programs that can supposedly help shed 20 pounds or more in just a week. These programs are pushed by fly-by-night gurus and hucksters who understand that people are often motivated by instant results that rarely endure, not by the work it takes to achieve lasting success.

As any credible health professional will tell you, the only way to realize and sustain healthy weight loss over the long-term is with discipline, a balanced diet, and a consistent regiment of exercise.

So what does this have to do with energy and climate? Because the same forces may be underway in the U.S. energy sector.

The graph below represents America’s “carbon weight” — otherwise known as carbon emissions from the energy sector. And it shows an improvement. Q1 Carbon emissions from the energy sector are at the lowest level they’ve ever been for the last 20 years. Seen from a narrow weight loss perspective, that’s a really good thing.

So bravo, America. You’ve made great progress since you last went to the doctor’s office — an 8 percent decrease in carbon poundage! But to holistically assess the nature of your progress, we need to take a little survey.

What have you been consuming since we last saw you?

Natural gas?

Hmm. You do realize that’s considered the “crack cocaine” of the utility industry, right? And while natural gas is certainly “cleaner” for your system when burned compared to coal, it’s still a fossil fuel that contributes excess carbon poundage. Scientists and public health officials are also still trying to determine all the other consequences — things like water contamination and methane leakages — that may harm your health in other ways.

At least you’re consuming less coal. In fact, you’ve reduced your consumption of coal by almost 20 percent compared to the first quarter of 2011 — a stunning decrease. Your carbon emissions from coal dropped 18 percent through March. You’ve also dramatically increased your share of healthy efficiency and renewable energy compared to your previous energy diet — but it’s still not nearly enough.

And how have you been feeling?

I see your temperature continues to rise. You had the hottest 12 month period on record, the hottest half year on record in 2012, the hottest July ever, and you’ve already broken or set more than 27,000 high temperature records so far this year — more than all of 2011.

You also feel like you’re getting addicted to cheap gas? Yes, that’s worrisome not only for your carbon weight, but for your wallet. After all, many experts believe estimates of the amount of gas available for consumption are wildly inflated. That could drive up prices sooner than you think.

And while you’ve made excellent choices in reducing your coal use, you’re still relying on gas, you’re still pushing coal to the rest of your friends in the international community, and it looks like you’re considering a new president who wants to force you back on a dangerous high-coal diet.

To put it bluntly, America, you aren’t exactly living the healthy lifestyle that your carbon weight loss would suggest.

Many are hailing the latest dip in carbon emissions as an energy miracle when, in fact, it’s being largely driven by short-term gains in natural gas combined with a warmer-than-average winter. Most believe that natural gas plays a role in America’s energy diet in varying degrees; however, a growing number of experts — including those at the International Energy Agency — say that natural gas would be an emissions disaster if built out too aggressively over the medium-term.

The Associated Press had a great piece on the trend yesterday:

The question is whether the shift is just one bright spot in a big, gloomy picture, or a potentially larger trend.

Coal and energy use are still growing rapidly in other countries, particularly China, and CO2 levels globally are rising, not falling. Moreover, changes in the marketplace — a boom in the economy, a fall in coal prices, a rise in natural gas — could stall or even reverse the shift. For example, U.S. emissions fell in 2008 and 2009, then rose in 2010 before falling again last year.

Also, while natural gas burns cleaner than coal, it still emits some CO2. And drilling has its own environmental consequences, which are not yet fully understood.

“Natural gas is not a long-term solution to the CO2 problem,” [Roger] Pielke warned.

Along with the many environmental and public health uncertainties about natural gas, the AP piece also looks at price volatility, a problem that has been largely lost in the energy conversation due to suppressed prices in recent years:

Last year the Environmental Protection Agency issued its first rules to limit CO2 emissions from power plants, but the standards don’t take effect until 2014 and 2015. Experts had predicted that the rules might reduce emissions over the long term, but they didn’t expect so many utilities to shift to gas so early. And they think price was the reason.

“A lot of our units are running much more gas than they ever have in the past,” said Melissa McHenry, a spokeswoman for Ohio-based American Electric Power Co. “It really is a reflection of what’s happened with shale gas.”

“In the near term, all that you’re going to build is a natural gas plant,” she said. Still, she warned: “Natural gas has been very volatile historically. Whether shale gas has really changed that — the jury is still out. I don’t think we know yet.”

Although natural gas has forced a major reduction in coal consumption — an excellent short-term development — we have a coal industry prepared to push its product to anyone in the international community who wants it. And beceause our carbon diet is inextricably tied to the diets of other countries, that decision will also harm our health:

Jason Hayes, a spokesman for the American Coal Council, based in Washington, predicted cheap gas won’t last.

“Coal is going to be here for a long time. Our export markets are growing. Demand is going up around the world. Even if we decide not to use it, everybody else wants it,” he said.

In other words, we don’t really know if the recent changes are a “fad” or the sign of a healthy change in the energy diet of America. Will we succumb to the exciting, immediate results of natural gas, only to find that we can’t keep the weight off? Or will we embrace the right choices to make the country more efficient and clean — putting us on a path to dropping that carbon weight for good?

29 Responses to Historic Drop In U.S. Carbon Emissions: Is This Real ‘Weight’ Loss, Or Just A Fad Diet?

  1. Thank you for this refreshing and realistic article. I almost pulled out my hair reading an article on the Huffington Post proclaiming ‘cautious optimism’ for natural gas to help solve our climate problem.

    To any point, I don’t think it’s feasible to increase any fossil fuel use and expect to have a meaningful impact on climate change. There need to be reductions across the board.

    If it’s a part of a plan to phase out coal, to shift to natural gas and then to reduce natural gas production, then it may be well and good. But to just continue laissez faire, business as usual, follow where the market leads, then, as your article notes, pretty soon we find ourselves right back to burning coal.

    I’d think, at this point, any rational person would push for policy measures that tax all sources of carbon based on their output and subsidize and incentivize the use of alternative energy sources.

    The fact that natural gas is being touted as a solution shows that we are, basically, back to square one.

  2. Greatgrandma Kat says:

    Very good article, anyone who has watched Gasland and done even a small amount of research knows the side affects of gas drilling are in the end going to cost us much more than we are currently saving, both in terms of cost of product and environmental damage.

  3. Pat says:

    The “cautious optimism” piece on HuffPost was the same Associated Press piece referenced in the TP article above. “Cautious optimism” was Michael Mann’s quote on the shift from coal as possible ways to deal with climate change.

  4. Joan Savage says:

    Exceptionally mild winter weather (another sign of climate change) occurred in the first quarter of 2012.

    My household natural gas use was the lowest for cumulative therms for a winter in at least five years.

    I was not the only energy customer who got off easy, using less for heating.

    This is likely a factor for overall carbon emissions in the first quarter, as it would include natural gas, fuel oil, and electricity from coal or natural gas.

    In contrast, with the heatwaves we have been experiencing this summer, I expect to see a jump in second and third quarters for forms of energy used for electricity for air-conditioning.

  5. RobS says:

    The important thing to remember is that solar and wind are fast becoming the cheapest option, however in the absence of commercially viable grid level storage it is far easier to attain high levels of renewable penetration with a natural gas grid then a coal based grid, ie NG is a better transition fuel then coal. Therefore a large switch to NG now whilst not ideal puts us in a position to integrate significantly larger shares of renewables onto the grid whilst we wait for grid level storage technology to continue to mature.

  6. BobbyL says:

    A study by Tom Wigley shows that partially replacing coal with natural gas would actually slightly accelerate climate change through 2050. And that doesn’t include methane leaks. If there were substantial leaks then the acceleration could occur until 2140. Switching involves more complexity than people realize.

  7. Sorry, folks it’s not a great AP piece.

    It’s actually just more everyday MSM headline malpractice.

    And any actual trend, except the face-value shift from coal to gas, is lost in the noise.

    When one reports out “U.S. carbon emissions” based on a report that actually shows “U.S. carbon emissions from energy consumption,” one has badly missed the boat.

    The GHG carbon-equivalent cost of natural gas is on the production and transmission sides, not the consumption side. So the EIA report doesn’t even address it.

    Let alone the very significant fractions of total U.S. GHG emissions from land use changes, agricultural practices, etc.

    Ya gotta compare apples to apples, or it is just meaningless.

    #ScienceFail !

  8. Does this include the population increase of 65+ million since 1990?

    Would that be like growing two feet taller while trying to lose weight?

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Sure enough, Kat, but the rich capitalists will make loadsa money-all that counts.

  10. Paul Klinkman says:

    We’re mining more coal, we’re just sending it to China to be burned. Don’t you feel cooler already?

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Unfortunately, RobS, there is not the time left for technologies to ‘mature’ at some leisurely pace, while the hydrocarbon plutocrats continue to reap tens of billions in profits.

  12. Leif says:

    It is important to remember that distributed energy happens where it is needed most at the time it is needed most. [AC.] Minimal line loss, peak demand power and roof shade all add value to that solar array. Perhaps as much as $0.50 /kWh value added. Straight to the homeowner and community. Not a Swiss Bank Account. Think man! The transition will take time. Go for the big payoffs first! Stop profits from the pollution of the commons. Then there will be lots to do and our money in the first place to do it with.

  13. Paul Magnus says:

    Yes does this take into account foreign goods consumed in US and FF exports…..

  14. Spike says:

    I found this lecture on the net today, which is as good a summary of the urgency of the situation I have seen by a non scientist.

  15. Spike says:

    His conclusions include this ringing statement

    “When one understands these facts, the state
    of political debate around the world takes on an air of unreality. Rich country
    policies—including cutting emissions by a few per cent and outsourcing most of the
    cuts to developing countries; waiting for carbon capture and storage technology to
    save the coal industry and continuing to pollute at high levels until that happens;
    planning the construction of new coal-fired power plants; and even, in Australia,
    entertaining the idea of exporting brown coal—are so at odds with the scale and
    urgency of the emission cuts demanded by the science as to be almost laughable.
    They reflect a child-like belief that climate change can be averted by ignoring the
    truth and hoping for the best, a form of wishful thinking whose costs will prove

  16. Ernest says:

    I vote “fad diet”. We can’t seriously tackle climate change until it is recognized as a guiding principle in energy policy. (Everything else is “by accident”, even if a temporary dip in emissions.)

  17. Lou Grinzo says:

    The conversion to NG from coal is like saying you’re improving your health by cutting down your cigarette smoking from two packs per day to only one.

  18. RobS says:

    Incorrect, exports have risen but by less then the fall in domestic consumption, total coal mined so far this year is 5.5% lower than to the same time last year.

  19. Dick Smith says:

    Well done.

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Clive is very good, and states the truth of the profound moral, intellectual and spiritual failure of our system and its elites plainly. That has made him a target for the Right and for Murdoch’s hideous flag-shit ‘The Australian’ in particular, where he is relentlessly traduced and pilloried. Fortunately, there could not exist a finer testament to his character than the antipathy of that mob.

  21. Mike 22 says:

    Here is Wigley’s paper

    Does anyone know if the scenarios Wigley is using make room for the advantages which RobS @ 5) is (correctly) pointing out?

  22. Doug Grandt says:

    Only 3 things to add to express a simple idea: STOP NOW

    Oh yes, and and tell him to start winding down, retire a refinery this year, and another next year, and schedule all the rest for early retirement. That message also goes for respective coal and gas CEOs.

  23. Joan Savage says:

    Actually, a fast adolescent growth spurt vertically can be a good way to decrease percent body fat, but as a country we didn’t do that in a significant way.

    Per capita, the 1990 carbon dioxide emission in the USA was 19.1 metric tons/person/year, and by 2008 it was 17.5 metric tons/person/year, not a big drop, and the US was still in the dirtiest dozen of countries either per capita or by whole country.

  24. That paper by Wigley indicates that even if you just shut down coal plants and didn’t replace them it would slightly increase warming for the next 30 years because of the loss of the reflective particulate emissions. So it wasn’t a problem with natural gas, it was an ironic side-effect from coal consumption. I actually contacted Wigley and he confirmed this.

  25. Joe Romm says:

    No. I’ve pointed out many times this is false and misleading.

    It is true that (most of) the warming comes from reducing sulfate aerosol emissions — but the larger and more important point is that you are merely replacing coal with something that also releases carbon when burned and which leaks a highly potent greenhouse gas from well to power plant. So you get the worst of everything — the short-term warming from reducing coal pollution, the short-term warming from releasing methane, the short-term warming from constructing the power plant, and you are still releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, albeit about half as much.

    That’s why you just don’t gain anything from the warming perspective in the near term and the medium term (many decades) — particularly for replacing overseas coal where sulfate emissions are regulated.

    You would gain much from replacing coal with renewables, since you wouldn’t have the greenhouse gas emissions.

  26. Which part is false or misleading? You wrote nothing that actually contradicts what I wrote.

    In every case — even if you shut down coal plants and don’t replace them — the Wigley paper shows that global warming is worse for the next 3 decades. The reason this was obvious to me was that there was a temperature increase on Wigley’s graph in the case of zero methane leakage.

    So I contacted him and he confirmed that in every case — regardless of what (or even whether) you replace the coal plants with — there is an increase for the next three decades. The paper was then widely misrepresented as an indictment that natural gas is worse than coal, with nobody stating the caveat that everything in the short term is projected to be worse than coal.

    Your argument is that if we could replace natural gas generation with zero emission sources it would be better. That’s something I didn’t dispute, so you haven’t contradicted what I wrote, nor have you shown that it is false or misleading.

  27. That’s true on one level, but cold turkey is an option for the smoker that isn’t an option for the world’s energy consumption. Cold turkey in that case would literally kill the patient. So I don’t see any realistic option other than reducing our way to zero.

  28. Noah Quastel says:

    Or maybe, actually there isn’t the size of drop the EIA is reporting, because there seems no lifecycle analysis of fugitive emissions included. The July 2012 Monthly Energy Review–the source for the EIA press release–the first thing you find when you look for this on the EIA website and most likely the source of all the newsreports–at page 170 refers to a table of coefficients used for calculating the GHG emissions from natural gas by multiplying by BTUs of end of pipe consumption. Follow the links, open the spreadsheet and find the coefficient is unchanged from 1980. Now much natural gas replacing coal might not be from fracted gas, but still, one would expect some change to come up in the figures.

  29. Ric Merritt says:

    Hey, Stephen L, nice extended metaphor. You must be getting advice from a fine rhetorician.