Four Charts To Challenge Your Optimism About The Drop In U.S. Carbon Emissions

In 2009, Energy Secretary Steven Chu best summed up the looming impacts of climate change: “I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen.”

Of course, Chu was talking about the problem. But his comments accurately reflect our perception of the solutions as well.

Steady reductions in global warming pollution don’t come from simply sprinkling a few renewables on top of our existing energy system. It’s going to take a pretty dramatic re-thinking of how we design cities, build transportation systems, adapt agricultural operations, and deploy efficiency and clean energy. And that takes an enormous amount of energy and time — far more than the four-year political time cycles we often think within.

However, with the very notion that we need to deploy these solutions now under attack on the national political stage, we’re still far from collectively realizing the scope of that change.

Enter U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. Since 2005, America has seen a nearly 9 percent decline in annual CO2 emissions economy-wide. That’s due to a number of things: Appliances are getting more efficient, vehicles are using less fuel, companies are figuring out better ways to package and ship products, and we’re steadily transitioning our electricity sector from coal to natural gas and renewables.

Oh, the worst financial meltdown and economic crisis since the Great Depression had a pretty big impact too.

Aside from the whole economic crisis, all of these other factors are positive (depending, of course, on the true environmental impact of natural gas) and represent a broader shift toward a cleaner, more efficient economy. But they’re also somewhat worrisome.

First, they represent incremental change. Any change in the right direction is good. But in order to realize rapid de-carbonization, it’s going to take a lot more than a modest increase in the use of insulation and better-performing washing machines. It takes a pretty serious economy-wide undertaking — something that we haven’t quite “gripped in our gut” as Secretary Chu might say.

Second, most of the factors contributing to the decline in CO2 emissions have been enhanced by the economic slowdown. Those efficient washing machines, automobiles, and cleaner energy sources had a bigger impact because people were driving and consuming less.

So what happens when the economy really picks up steam? Are those carbon reductions going to last? A new report out from Climate Central argues no, they won’t necessarily last without some more dramatic changes.

Here are four charts showing why.

1. We are still utterly dependent on fossil fuels.

There’s no doubt about it, we’ve made great strides in deploying energy efficiency and bringing the cost of renewables down. But we have only scratched the surface on the kind of deep cuts in fossil fuel use that we need to see. (That’s part of the reason why scientists say building a pipeline like Keystone XL — a straw into one of the biggest and dirtiest pools of carbon on earth — is such a bad idea). Climate Central’s Eric Larson explains in the report:

The U.S. is the 2nd largest energy user in the world (18 percent of global energy) next to China (21 percent), and more than 80 percent of U.S. energy use is carbon-rich fossil fuel. The country has trillions of dollars invested in infrastructure designed to supply or use fossil fuels: power plants, coal mines, oil and gas wells, refineries, vehicle fleets, houses, office buildings, and manufacturing facilities. Most of this infrastructure is built to be used for decades. Unless such infrastructure is retired earlier than anticipated in favor of lower carbon-emitting infrastructure, fossil fuels are likely to continue to dominate energy use.

We are a petroleum-dependent economy. But we’re at least making our vehicles more efficient, aren’t we? Yes, and those efficiency improvements are important. However, they don’t change the fact that we still love to consume and love to drive. Which brings us to the second chart.

2. We are utterly dependent on cars and still lagging in public transport.

The graph above shows Energy Information Administration projections for vehicle miles traveled through 2050. So even though we’re going to see pretty dramatic improvements in fuel efficiency over the coming decades, we’re also going to see a similarly dramatic rise in driving:

The number of cars on the road in the U.S. has grown steadily for four decades, from about 100 million in 1970 to 250 million in 2010 (ORNL, 2011), and the Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that the number of new cars purchased in the coming 25 years will follow the long-term historical trend. More importantly from the standpoint of energy use, the EIA projects that the number of miles traveled by light-duty vehicles (cars, vans, SUVs, light trucks) will grow by a trillion miles between now and 2035. The growth in light-duty vehicle population and in vehicle miles traveled could certainly end up being slower than the EIA projects, but dramatic, even unprecedented societal changes would be required to reverse more than 40 years of annual driving increases, particularly in the context of a growing population.

The same goes for our electricity use. Globally, energy use from electronic devices is expected to triple by 2030 — amounting to the combined residential electricity use of the U.S. and Japan combined. And as U.S. consumers buy more gadgets, they will contribute to this trend, adding more to domestic energy consumption. So even with a massive increase in clean energy, we’re adding all kinds of new demands that challenge our ability to scale these resources.

Which brings us to the third chart.

3. Renewables are growing fast, but not fast enough.

Over the last four years, we’ve doubled our share of non-hydro renewable electricity. But let’s say we wanted to add enough renewables to replace our coal generation by 2035 — bringing a 34 percent reduction in CO2 emissions below 2005 levels by 2035. We would need to see a staggering ramp-up in deployment:

Another way to express the numbers is that expansion would be required at an annual average rate more than double the largest single-year addition ever, every year for the next 23 years – perhaps not impossible, but certainly unprecedented. And even if a 34 percent reduction were achieved, it would still fall far short of the 83 percent reduction by 2050 targeted in the Waxman-Markey bill and believed to be needed to help minimize damage from climate change.

As these charts make painfully obvious, we are on a path toward incremental improvement, but nothing close to a road that will bring us to steep emission cuts. And when the economy picks back up, it’s likely that the modest dips in economy-wide carbon emissions in recent years could level off.

So where does this put our options? Behold, chart four.

4. Making strong economy-wide emissions cuts takes serious work.

Climate Central’s Eric Larson provides four scenarios that could help us realize a 38 percent cut in carbon emissions below 2005 levels by 2035 — a target that would put us in line with what scientists say is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

The various scenarios include:

  • Maintaining driving miles at current levels (unlikely)
  • Strong improvements to building efficiency (very likely)
  • Substantial increases in natural gas (risky)
  • A massive deployment of carbon capture and storage (unproven)
  • An unprecedented increase in renewables (very possible, but a large task).

Combining the likelihood of all these scenarios together, the report concludes:

The recent drop in U.S. carbon emissions is reminiscent of a similar drop that began in 1980 in the wake of the Iranian hostage crisis. That drop in emissions lasted about 4 years: once the shock from skyrocketing oil prices subsided, the country began burning more and more fossil fuels each year. Fundamental forces that drove the increased fossil fuel use that caused the rising CO2 emissions from 1985 to 2005 – a growing population and growing wealth – are forces that will continue to drive increased demand for energy services in the decades ahead. Combined with the enormous dependence of the U.S. energy economy on fossil fuels today, emissions are unlikely to continue to decline once the economy regains steam.

So we’re not there yet.

Of course, we need to continue doing what we’re doing. Any incremental change in economy-wide efficiency is better than nothing. But as this report shows, the recent drop in carbon emissions isn’t a good indicator of our future success.

Unfortunately, it may be too late before we truly grip the enormity of the task in our guts.

32 Responses to Four Charts To Challenge Your Optimism About The Drop In U.S. Carbon Emissions

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    A bigger problem than our guts is the fact that the American public hasn’t captured the news in its brain. This in turn is a function of poor and nonexistent media coverage. Chu and others have not stepped up to fill in the gap, as the fossil fuel industry has juice with Obama, too.

  2. Jim Adcock says:

    Part of the problem is that the real scientists need to come to TV prepared to make their statements clearly and forcefully. For example how hard is it to come out and simply say: “Human-caused Global Warming is causing the destruction of coral reefs worldwide” ?

  3. Bob Wallace says:

    So, Stephen, your philosophy is that the best way to motivate people is to minimize progress, cover it up with questionable predictions, and keep people depressed and despondent?

    We don’t want people to enjoy the fact that EU27 CO2 emissions peaked around 1990 and US CO2 emissions peaked in 2005 and both have been falling (yes slightly) since? Wouldn’t want them to focus on what is working.

    That US emissions fell for a couple of years (2006 and 2007) while the economy was booming needs to be hidden by talking about the recession as a major cause. Even when we are generating more electricity than we were in 2005 and driving only slightly less.

    Guess you and I really disagree on how one fires up the team so that they will work harder. I sort of think people work harder when they see results from their efforts….

  4. Ken Barrows says:

    Since climate is a planetary thing, isn’t world carbon emissions what really counts? After all, economic activity has been steadily moving from the West to the East.

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    We are really at an emissions plateau, due to coal plant retirements and better gas mileage and building efficiency. Emissions reductions are only marginally significant.

    This is hardly the time to rest on our laurels. We are still nowhere near pricing carbon. I’m with Stephen here.

  6. Bob Wallace says:

    You are correct, Ken. Does it not please you that a large portion of the world, the EU27 and the US seem to have stopped their growth in CO2 emissions?

    Should we remain gloomy and depressed until all countries have peaked? Or should we take heart when some countries have figured out a way forward.

    BTW, the US GDP has been higher every single year than it was in 2005. There was a slight downward drop in 2009 but even that year the US GDP was significantly higher than in 2005 when we hit our CO2 peak.

    Do remember that during 2006, 2007, and most of 2008 the US economy was in party mode. And CO2 emissions fell.

    US heating oil use peaked in 1996 and was 40% less in 2010 than what it was at the peak. Most of that fall occurred prior to the recession. Apparently weather stripping and increased insulation along with more efficient oil heaters are working.

    Wouldn’t it be a good idea to celebrate that progress? Get people excited about what works and what they can personally do to help us avoid the worst of climate change?

    Or is it better to make sure everyone haz a sad?

  7. Bob Wallace says:

    Mike, when your team is behind and starting to show a rally do you boo them or cheer them on?

  8. Bob Wallace says:

    OK, I’ve tried twice to link to the article which apparently triggered Stephan’s article and neither post has appeared.

    Go to Cleantechnia and do a search for “CO2 peak”. You’ll see a ‘Docking our Boat’ article.

  9. I hate to have to say this, but as far as I can tell, the Climate Central report is based on a serious canard.

    As far as I can read in the report and its references – and I’d love to be corrected! – the focus of the discussion, the “9 percent decline in annual CO2 emissions,” actually just goes back to the recent EIA report, the point of which was distorted by EIA PR, and then butchered by the AP and others.

    The EIA report documents a drop in US emissions from energy consumption.

    It does not document an overall drop in emissions from the energy sector.

    It does not document an overall drop in emissions from the US economy.

    It most certainly does not document an overall drop in US emissions.

    More on that here, FWIW:

    Hard to tell climate score when AP & WaPo blow the count

    Tiresome as it may be, I think we do need to get this stuff right. If there are better references behind the Climate Central report, please help bring them to the surface.

    Otherwise, the defensive argument about how we need to keep working hard even though emissions are going down, is based on a simple myth, from the very beginning.

  10. All that said about the myth of US emissions reductions, I need to also agree that the four charts and the things we need to do/keep doing, are true and valuable – thanks!

  11. The article “Not Crashing Our Boat” at Clean Technica has a lot of charts and numbers but I don’t see any source info or tight definitions to go with presentation. As such, it’s not very useful for addressing the question of the US emissions reduction myth.

  12. Bob Wallace says:

    You can find the “mythical” US CO2 data in

    Report #: DOE/EIA-0573(2008)
    Release Date: December 3, 2009  

    and 2009/2010 data from the

    AEO2012 Early Release Overview

    I would give you the links but this site apparently does not allow comments containing links (or at least traps them for review).

  13. The EIA data documents a drop in US emissions from energy consumption.

    It does not document an overall drop in emissions from the energy sector.

    It does not document an overall drop in emissions from the US economy.

    It most certainly does not document an overall drop in US emissions.

  14. Derek says:

    We aren’t going to do any of these things. It will be too inconvenient, and it will be cheaper to just let civilization collapse.

    Those who really run things will be fine, for as long as that lasts. Human beings just do not seem able to grasp how big this is. Those few that can see it’s too late or are immobilized.

  15. Merrelyn Emery says:

    A quite unwarranted generalization, ME

  16. Bob Wallace says:

    In 2010 we generated 1.8% more electricity while CO2 emissions fell 6.6% compared to 2005.

    (EIA annual report – I can’t post links here.)

    In 2005 Americans drove 8,190 millions miles per day. In 2010 they drove 8,127, a decrease of 63 million miles or only 0.8%.

    From 2005 airline “seat miles” fell from 1,029,244 to 991,929 in 2010. That was a decrease of 37,315 unit or 3.6%

    In 2005 the US consumed 20802 thousand barrels of oil per day. By 2010 that number had dropped to 18700 thousand barrels per day, a drop of 10.1% A drop of 10.1% when miles driven and flown were down much less than 10%.

    DOT numbers. (I can’t post links here.)

    In 2005 total US CO2 emissions – all sources was 6029 million tonnes. In 2008 that number fell to 5839 million tonnes, a 3% drop while the economy was booming.

    Report #: DOE/EIA-0573(2008)
    Release Date: December 3, 2009

    By 2010 the total CO2 output for the US, all sources, fell to 5634 million tonnes, a 6.6% decrease from 2005.

    AEO2012 Early Release Overview

    US GDP in 2005 was $12,623 billion. In 2010 the US GDP rose to $14,527, an increase of 15%.

    We’re generating a bit more electricity than we were in 2005, we’re driving and flying a bit less while burning much less oil. Our economy has grown.

    And our total CO2 emissions, all sources, are down.

    It seems to me that we are doing something right.

    It seems to me that we want to do more of those good things.

    It seems to me that we need to celebrate our successes in order to motivate ourselves to work harder and to confirm to ourselves that we are on the right track.

    If you are the sort of person who works best for a boss who is always on you about your shortcomings and never acknowledges your successes then you probably don’t want to hear any good news. But I don’t think the majority of people are built like that.

  17. Dick Smith says:

    The 5th Chart should be emissions AFTER imports and exports are computed. I’ve seen an odler map. We’ve outsourced our emissions to China. A year or two ago, we still led the world actual emissions–not China–when imports/exports are considered.

  18. Actually, the situation is more complicated than whether we can or can’t meet emission targets. Naturally Stephen limited his article, a summary of the Climate Central original, to this single topic — that’s appropriate writing for a short to mid-length piece.

    But the truth is, meeting emissions targets, as difficult as that would be, is only part of the problem because we’ve triggered feedback mechanisms in the Arctic, Amazon and elsewhere that will exacerbate global warming.

    People who follow this blog know that Prof. Wadhams and his Polar Ocean Physics group at Cambridge have calculated that the loss of Arctic ice albedo is already adding something like 24 years of anthropogenic CO2 emissions to global warming each year. Then there is the permafrost methane/CO2 feedback loop and the general warming of the arctic region due to decreased snowpacks, warmer fresh water entering the ocean from Arctic rivers and so on.

    Here’s a quote from the recent Scientific American article (also posted on CP) by Ramez Nam: “If even 10% of the northern permafrost’s buried carbon were released as methane, it would have a heating effect over the next decade equivalent to ten times all human greenhouse emissions to date…at the very minimum, CO2 release from melting permafrost will add 10-15% to human emissions.”

    Most humans, and certainly humans in groups or as a species, never give up — hope springs eternal. But it’s going to take a lot more than cheering on our team to defeat the climate beast.

    To expand on Bob Wallace’s sports analogy, let’s say you’re three touchdowns behind in the fourth quarter, but your defense makes a big stop and you get the ball back. Yes, you cheer on the offense, but not if they start to run rather than passing. Even if they run the ball well, they are going to run out of time before they can begin to catch up.

    I’m of the opinion that the U.S. hasn’t really reduced emissions so much as exported them to China and elsewhere so we can keep consuming but pay less for our goods. But whatever the case, on a planet-wide basis emissions are growing, not receding. And when you combine that fact with the feedback mechanisms I just mentioned, we are indeed in dire straights.

    My heart says that if we keep fighting that somehow we might pull through. But my mind says that we have to choose our battles well. Otherwise it will be a general collapse of society, rather than wise policies that finally reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

  19. Bob Wallace says:

    US manufacturing has been moving to China for more than 15 years. By 2005 energy intensive industry such as steel was gone from the US.

    To attribute the drop in US CO2 emissions to a loss of manufacturing post 2005 without providing data to back that claim seems to me an attempt to cover over our success in increasing efficiency and lowering CO2.

    Our car and light truck MPG averages have significantly increased over the last seven years. We’ve brought more efficient planes to our skies. Our manufacturers have sought ways to produce more while using less energy.

    Or appliances and light bulbs are more efficient.

    We are generating less of our electricity with coal and more with natural gas and non-hydro renewables. Natural gas is a mixed issue because of methane leaks and fracking chemicals, but it does reduce CO2 emissions.

    We have peaked and dropped. We are doing some things right. We now need to do more.

  20. Solar Jim says:

    RE: “Another way to express the numbers is that expansion would be required at an annual average rate more than double the largest single-year addition ever, every year for the next 23 years.”

    We appreciate your concerns. However, you might improve your perspective by examining the age of our coal plants and reexamining what exponential growth can do in the market. The above stated challenge might become irrelevant in a truly “free market,” instead of the corrupted one we have now. Exponential is not 2,4,6,8. It is 4,8,16,32,64,128,etc.

  21. Jpeg says:

    When the car is almost at the cliff do you cheer the fact that they took the foot off the gas?

  22. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    To plateau and/or slightly decrease our emissions is not nearly good enough. Here’s a slide presentation by Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre, University of Manchester. It’s as good a presentation as I know of – lacking only the soundtrack and/or transcript. The gist is there none-the-less:

  23. Bob Wallace says:

    You are correct.

    What we have done to date is not enough.

    But we don’t have to deny our successes, in fact it would be a terrible idea to deny our successes. We need to learn that what we have been doing is showing results and build on that success.

  24. David B. Benson says:

    Stephen, this is a fine reminder of how much we have still to do.

    By using the phrase ‘clean energy’, then nuclear power plants can be included along with the more usual renewables. With all of that we could turn off all the coal burners fairly rapidly.

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It’s not just the fossil fuel industry. The tens of trillions in assets that the fossil fuel genocidaires have on their books are the bedrock of late capitalism. So all capitalists must be denialists, lest the foundations of all the scams be kicked out. That goes particularly for the financial grifters, who are Obama’s prime owners.

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’m afraid that television stations have security guards whose job it is to keep ‘unwanted guests’ away. Invitations for troublemakers do not materialise.

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I tend to agree with both sides here. It would be good to see what measures have really led to emissions reduction, and broaden and deepen their implementation. However, it is also important to acknowledge what fraction of the reduction comes from warmer winter wealth, off-shoring of polluting industry and economic retrenchment. And more, much, much, more, needs to be done, as rapidly as humanly possible.

  28. Of course we’ve had some success. Quite a lot of it, really. But the point of this article is that at our current rate of decarbonization, we won’t come even close to meeting emission targets that MIGHT keep us below 2°C. If you add in the natural feedbacks I discussed, the picture ain’t pretty.

    I wish we could just keep plugging away adding renewables to the energy mix and becoming more energy efficient, but we are going to need a far more radical change in our society than is currently taking place in order to avoid some of the worst consequences of global warming.

  29. Good point, Jim. Exponential growth of renewables displacing dirty energy (which includes nuclear) could save the day. But things will have to change rapidly to spur or allow exponentail growth to get underway, and I fear that the temptation will be to go for the cheap “solution” — aerosol Geoengineering — before the fossil fuel and financial barrons clear the path for a renewable revolution.

  30. Wes says:

    The unanswered question is how long do we have before we hit the tipping point of uncontrolled runaway CO2? I’m just not seeing any sense of urgency in a lot of the debate. The metaphor of “just taking your foot off the gas before the car goes over the cliff” is apt.

    The statement in one of the posts about the Arctic melting that equated the warming effect of an ice-free Arctic ocean to 20 years of human CO2 emissions was not encouraging. We don’t know where the tipping point is, but we’re getting there much faster than we think.

  31. Ken Barrows says:

    If one can look at bailing teaspoons of water out of the Titanic as progress toward the ultimate goal, then come on be happy!

    If the EU and USA offshore manufacturing to China, damn straight Chinese emissions are important.

  32. “We don’t know where the tipping point is, but we’re getting there much faster than we think.”

    Yes, that’s my concern, especially after this summer’s events in the Arctic, and this year’s drought in the midwest, extreme weather events, forest fires and so on. It seems that tipping points that just a couple of years ago appeared to be a frighteningly-close decade or two away are now upon us. Windows that might have closed in 2030 could actually close by 2015.

    Even if we had all the political will in the world for finding and implementing solutions, which we don’t, we might not have the time to react.

    And in our current situation, with neither presidential candidate even mentioning climate change during the debate, and a huge disinformation campaign being run by fossil fuel interests, it seems we won’t even take our foot off the accelerator before we’re over the cliff.