The U.S. Energy Information Agency’s new state-by-state report on carbon emissions shows some progress, but you sort of have to squint to see it. The paper, which came out on Monday, didn’t account for the last three years — it only has data for 2000 to 2010 — but it ran through several different ways of looking at the problem.
So here’s a drill down into what we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong, and what we can do about it.
First, the good news. The total carbon intensity of the economy dropped 17.9 percent over those ten years. That’s how much carbon we release for every million dollars our economy produces. Our carbon emissions per person are also down 12.6 percent, and the amount of energy we use for every million dollars of economic production we crank out is down 15.2 percent. That last number is good news for energy efficiency, but it’s the headline number that’s really important. It means we’re getting better at producing jobs and incomes while doing less damage to the global climate. Here’s a breakdown of the economy’s carbon intensity by state:
PERCENT CHANGE IN CARBON INTENSITY OF ECONOMY 2000 – 2010
Remember, we want reductions, so the columns in the negative are good — and all but Missouri are. Unfortunately, while some of this is certainly more renewable energy (driven by state/federal policy) and cheap natural gas and tightened fuel efficiency standards, a lot of it is also the recession. A sluggish economy is forcing us to learn to do more with less. The real question is whether we can hold onto those lessons once growth picks back up.
Now the bad news. Total carbon emissions only dropped 4.2 percent. That’s what will determine whether we catastrophically destabilize the climate. The planet doesn’t care how efficiently we produce carbon, it just cares how much carbon we produce. Again, here’s a breakdown by state. Notice how fewer columns are in the negative:
PERCENT CHANGE IN TOTAL CARBON EMISSIONS 2000 – 2010
Right now our increased efficiency and lower carbon intensity is being swamped by America’s rising population and the sheer scale of its economy. And the carbon intensity of our energy — how much carbon we produce per unit of energy — is only down 3.2 percent. So we’re getting better at using energy more efficiently, but not so much at producing less carbon while generating that energy.
That’s a big problem. The International Energy Agency recently ran the numbers and determined that the carbon intensity of the United States’ energy sector has barely budged since 1990. Same for the carbon intensity of the world’s energy production. If those numbers don’t drop drastically by 2050, we’re headed for six degrees Celsius of global warming by 2100.
The 6DS scenario leads to 6C warming by 2100.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but that would be a worldwide disaster. First, more heat waves, droughts, floods, storms, and extreme weather. Then, most likely, crop failures and worldwide destabilization of food supplies. Marine ecologies and the food chains they support for humans would fall apart as well. Combine all that with rising seas, and many places would become uninhabitable, creating huge numbers of climate refugees.
So what do we do? In America, ultimately, we need much more investment in clean energy and a meaningful price on carbon. But that requires action by Congress, which is hopelessly deadlocked for the moment.
That means the Obama Administration needs to find an alternative route to bringing down carbon emissions. Thanks to the Clean Air Act and a Supreme Court ruling, the White House has both the power and the legal obligation to regulate carbon emissions via the Environmental Protection Agency. The question is how. They’re already finalizing rules for new power plants, but they need to decide what to do about existing power plants.
To that end, the Natural Resources Defense Council has stepped in with a sophisticated proposal. It would allow power generators a mix of options to meet emissions targets and thus earn credits they can trade with other emitters, and it would set a different emissions caps for different states based on the fuel mix in the energy sector. That last point is worth emphasizing in light of the new EIA report, since it makes clear how much energy use, progress on efficiency, and reliance on coal versus natural gas versus renewables differs from state to state.
All told, the NRDC’s proposal could cut carbon emissions from power plants 26 percent from 2005′s levels by 2020, according to widely accepted models:
The NRDC’s plan wouldn’t get us all the way to where we need to go. It only covers power generation, for one thing, leaving emissions from cars and many other forms of transportation untouched. But it would be a good start. And unlike most policy changes, a lack of political will is literally the only thing that could prevent the Obama Administration from implementing it.