EIA: Extending Current Energy Policies Would Keep U.S. Carbon Pollution Emissions Flat Through 2040

The new analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is a classic good news, bad news story, summed up in this chart:

The good news is that merely by extending existing energy policies, the United States could keep energy-related carbon dioxide emissions flat through 2040.

That’s also the bad news — for two reasons.

First, the anti-science, anti-government crowd has a stranglehold on federal policy for the foreseeable future, whereas the Extended Policies case assumes the Congress actively extends key policies including “the continuation of the production tax credit for wind, biomass, geothermal, and other renewable resources, and the investment tax credit for solar generation technologies.”

Second, as CAP’s Dan Weiss noted on CP in December, flatlining CO2 “would be an epic disaster for the United States and the rest of the planet”:

Such an outcome would certainly condemn the United States and the world to the most devastating impacts from climate change, including more fatalities and damages from increasingly ferocious and frequent extreme weather, more deaths and illness from smog, tropical diseases infecting people in northern latitudes, and the disruption of the world’s food production system.

It bears repeating that a 60% reduction by 2050 vs. 1990 levels is the target that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the rich countries (Annex I) should adopt if the goal is to stabilize at 550 ppm CO2-eq.  I discussed the science underlying this at length in 2009.

Here’s the key chart from the full Working Group III report (Box 13.7, page 776):

The 550 ppm CO2-equivalent is about 450 ppm CO2 (because of the warming from the other greenhouse gases). It means ultimately “stabilizing” at 3°C (5.4°F) above preindustrial levels using the “best estimate” of climate sensitivity — see the IPCC’s Synthesis Report “Summary for Policymakers” (Table SPM.6). And that “stabilizing” assumes no major carbon cycle feedbacks, like, say the thawing permafrost, which will likely add 0.4°F – 1.5°F to total global warming by 2100.

Thus, in the real world, 550 ppm CO2-equivalent is likely to be devastating to modern civilization, leading to widespread Dust-Bowlification and an ice free planet. So even a 60% reduction in U.S. emissions by mid-century isn’t sufficient.

A non-suicidal species would pursue something closer to 450 ppm CO2-eq or less — and that means taking U.S. emissions down more than 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. That would require us to be near 1 billion metric tons of CO2 around 2040, rather than flatlining at over 5 billion.

Through 2020, Obama can put the U.S. close to the sane path without Congress, by using the executive authority under the Clean Air Act — a plan spelled out in detail by the Natural Resources Defense Council. To stay anywhere near the 450 ppm path post-2020, we’d likely need a sane Congress, too.

16 Responses to EIA: Extending Current Energy Policies Would Keep U.S. Carbon Pollution Emissions Flat Through 2040

  1. Ed Leaver says:

    We need a sane Congress. Whatever one president can do by executive authority, the next can undo. Votes count. So does education.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks for your direct language here, Joe, we need your warrior side.

    Meanwhile, we read media reports celebrating the mostly recession-caused flattening of US emissions in the last few years. The 17 Mt CO2 per capita figure is what we really need to work on, of course, or international progress will continue to stall. Europeans won’t feel motivated to reduce their own 8 Mt per capita figure while watching us drive RV’s for vacations, and live in 3000′ wood and vinyl mansions. Indians and Chinese will just laugh when we try to preach to them. Let’s clean up our own house first.

  3. M Tucker says:

    “To stay anywhere near the 450 ppm path post-2020, we’d likely need a sane Congress, too.”

    We need a sane world too.

    Don’t forget the rest of the Annex I countries. I wonder if Canada or Russia would be onboard? Do you suppose that if the US leads the way Russia will follow? There are a lot of other countries on that list that might say they need more time.

    Some countries not counted in Annex I: China, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia. They just have to come up with some unspecified “deviation from baseline.” Even the 450 ppm eq category does not specify what would constitute “substantial deviation.”

    Why is Russia in Annex I and China gets a pass? Most of the important fossil fuel exporting nations are in the Non-Annex I category.

    I see a lot of reasons to expect that 550 ppm CO2 eq is an optimistic figure.

  4. lannie says:

    Um, James Hansen said quite awhile back that 350ppm would be the tipping point. @400ppm is where we are today and it is spiking with no slow down in sight.

  5. Superman1 says:

    A sane Congress requires a sane electorate. ‘We’ have exactly the Congress ‘we’ want doing what ‘we’ want: nothing! If you expect the Congress or President to provide leadership counter to the wishes of the majority just because it’s the right thing to do, forget it. That’s not what these politicians are all about.

  6. Superman1 says:

    There are two questions that follow immediately. Can we step back, or is this tipping point irreversible? If we can, what policy is required?

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    If the US did its share of the work, it would reap a dividend from renewable energy industries. What’s not to like about that? As it is the Chinese, who get a ‘free pass’ because of their low state of development (rapidly being addressed) and lesser contribution to ‘historical emissions’, are doing more than anyone to make renewables cheaper, so I think that they do not deserve too much criticism. They, and everyone, must do more, of course.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Whether we can ‘step back’ is, in my opinion, irrelevant. We must do so, even if it proves futile. ‘The situation is hopeless-we must take the next step’.

  9. Superman1 says:

    It was meant as a ‘leading’ question; the real point to elicit is the policy required if one believes we are anywhere near a ‘tipping point’.

  10. Superman1 says:

    Mike, Your comment has some very important implications. Let’s start from where we are; I believe we have run out of atmospheric carbon budget, whether Hansen’s 350ppm is used as a metric or my rapid Arctic ice melt temperature is used as a metric. When one runs out of budget, severe restrictions are in order.

  11. Superman1 says:

    Let’s take the travel industry as an example, specifically vacation travel. Today, it is basically all fossil fuel-driven, and will be so for the near future (especially airline flights, ocean cruises, etc). Since any further fossil fuel combustion puts us further out on the limb of extreme danger, any non-essential uses of fossil fuel must go. This means all non-essential vacation travel based on fossil fuel would need to be eliminated.

  12. Superman1 says:

    The vacation travel industry would collapse, and would have a strong ripple effect on dependent industries (hotels, restaurants, etc). This would have severe economic impact on the owners and workers of these industries. This is what Anderson and Garrett mean when they say that taking the steps required to reduce emissions and save the biosphere would REQUIRE effective Depression/collapse of our present economic system. This example could be replicated in whole or part for myriad other industries on which the global economy depends.

  13. Superman1 says:

    All those posters who arm-wave that we can transition to renewables with no sacrifice required are engaging in complete misrepresentation of the truth. Either we recognize the harsh sacrifices required to save our civilization and agree to take them, or we continue the present sacrifice-free mode of living until we go over the cliff before the end of the century.

  14. Superman1 says:

    Now, how many people do you know who would be willing to make this relatively painless sacrifice in order to help ameliorate the climate problem? Not one person I’ve talked to on either side of the climate issue has expressed any willingness to change their personal vacation travel practices to help save the climate. Forget about politicians or media; personal practices are the real hurdle we face, and why I am pessimistic about our taking any real steps to address climate change.

  15. Mark E says:

    Reminds me of the smoker who declared “victory!” when they managed to stop the increase in their habit, but carried on at a stabilized consumption of a pack-and-a-half per day.

  16. rollin says:

    This is very dangerous and lazy thinking.

    It only takes less than 0.5 watt imbalance to stop and reverse an ice age. With just albedo changes controlling up to 5 watts of positive differential heating, there is no way to reverse the heating trend once the natural tipping points kick in. We need to reduce our carbon output by 6% every year until it is near zero and we need to find ways to reduce atmospheric carbon at the same time.
    Anything less than that is just irresponsible and dangerous.