Climate

Carbon Emissions Are Up In The Energy Sector. But There’s A Silver Lining.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Jeffrey Energy Center coal-fired power plant near Emmett, Kansas.

Carbon emissions from the U.S. energy sector increased in 2014 for the second year in a row, despite a big boost in renewable energy capacity, the Energy Information Association (EIA) reported on Monday.

The energy sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, so an increase in those emissions is certainly not ideal for the purposes of stopping human-caused climate change. What is positive, though, is that the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) increased in 2014 more than carbon emissions from the energy sector did, indicating that America is at least doing a little better at decoupling emissions from economic growth.

Specifically, the EIA reported that energy-related carbon emissions increased 0.7 percent in 2014, while the 2014 GDP grew at a rate of 2.4 percent. That’s significantly better than 2013, when energy-related carbon emissions increased by 2.5 percent while the GDP grew at a rate of 2.2 percent. Past years when energy-related emissions decreased consistently corresponded with a decrease in GDP.

For the second year in a row, energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the United States have increased.

For the second year in a row, energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the United States have increased.

CREDIT: EIA.gov

According to the EIA, the numbers represent a signal that the U.S. increasingly needs less energy to produce economic growth. Specifically, the agency reported that the United States required 13 percent less energy per unit of GDP in 2014 than in 2005, the year generally used as a baseline to compare yearly emissions. Similar, energy intensity fell in 2014 by 1.2 percent, the EIA said.

Still, emissions from the energy sector are expected to increase very slightly in 2015 and 2016, at a rate of 0.1% annually, the EIA said. After that, however, energy-related emissions are expected to decrease, and remain below 2005 levels by more than 400 million metric tons in 2040.

That prediction is in line with a recent report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), which predicted that 2015 would be transformative for the “de-carbonization” of the U.S. power sector. That report predicted 2015 to be a record-breaking year not only for the installation of renewable energy like solar and wind, but also for retirement of coal plants, which produce the most carbon emissions of any fuel.

The decoupling of carbon emissions from economic growth is hugely important to the fight against global climate change, as it seems unlikely that developing countries would voluntarily clean up their power sectors if it guaranteed economic decline. The good news is that decoupling is finally starting to happen worldwide — In 2014, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions flatlined while the world economy grew, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). That flatlining of global emissions marked “the first time in 40 years in which there was a halt or reduction in emissions of the greenhouse gas that was not tied to an economic downturn,” the IEA said.

Perhaps the most important thing about global energy-sector emissions finally decoupling from economic growth is not the emissions reductions themselves, but the momentum it could provide to negotiators in charge of brokering an international plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change. The U.N. climate talks, happening at the end of 2015 in Paris, are widely considered the last chance for a global agreement that could feasibly keep the rise in global average temperatures under 2°C.