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Climate pollution in the U.S. is falling — for now

Greenhouse gas emissions fell in 2015, thanks in part to a mild winter.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File
CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File

In 2015 — for the first time in two years — climate emissions in the United States declined, according to a draft report released by the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday.

Emissions declined 2.2 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to the report. The drop was driven by a continued shift away from coal and towards lower-emission fossil fuels like natural gas (though methane-leaks associated with natural gas production might cancel the climate benefits of natural gas); that shift coupled with a particularly mild winter translated into less electricity demand for heating.

Despite slight increases in climate emissions in 2010, 2013, and 2014, emissions in the United States have generally been on the decline in the past decade — emissions peaked in 2007, but have trended downward ever since. The largest year-to-year reduction in emissions in the last decade came between 2008 and 2009, during the Great Recession.

Globally, greenhouse gas emissions have remained flat for the last three years, thanks in large part to declining emissions in China.

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Targets set by the Obama administration call for a 28 percent reduction in carbon emissions over 2005 levels by 2025, and it seems unlikely President Donald Trump will feel bound to meeting those goals. Fossil fuel combustion is the largest emitter in the United States, accounting for 93.3 percent of carbon emissions in 2015, meaning that even small changes in the energy and transportation industries can have an impact on countrywide emissions.

Trump has promised to greatly scale back investment in renewable energy — which grew at record rates during the Obama administration — and renew focus on extraction of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. He has also pledged to end the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s most ambitious effort to curb carbon emissions from the electricity sector, and the Obama Climate Action Plan, which called for things like increased energy efficiency, power plant and vehicle emission controls, and limits on “super pollutants” like hydrofluorocarbons.

On the White House website, the Trump administration’s “America First Energy Plan” describes the Climate Action Plan as “unnecessary” and “harmful.”

The EPA is required to issue a yearly report inventorying the United State’s greenhouse gas emissions as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It’s unclear whether these reports will continue under the Trump administration, which is openly hostile towards climate science and has expressed some interest in withdrawing the United States from the UNFCCC altogether, as a means of exiting the Paris climate agreement.

Exiting the Paris agreement — and withdrawing from the UNFCCC altogether — would essentially remove the United States from the position of global leader on climate action that it occupied during the Obama years. As the world’s largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States plays a crucial role in global climate negotiations — the country’s absence would make it almost impossible for the world to meet the commitments made in Paris. Without the United States, global progress on curbing carbon emissions would likely fall to China, the world’s largest carbon emitter. And while China has made overtures towards pushing continued progress on climate action, issues of data transparency and continued state investment in coal-fired power plants complicate that role.

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It is unclear just how — and when — the Trump administration plans to withdraw from the Paris agreement, or how they plan to cancel domestic policies like the Clean Power Plan. According to Inside EPA News, Trump is scheduled to visit the Environmental Protection Agency as soon as his nominee for EPA administrator Scott Pruitt — the Oklahoma attorney general who has sued the agency 14 times — is sworn in, and plans to release several EPA-related executive orders at that time. An administration source told Inside EPA News that the orders are intended to “send a message that Pruitt is ready to get to work and that they could ‘suck the air out’ of the room.”

Pruitt is expected to be confirmed by the Senate later this week, despite strong Democratic opposition.