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.