U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions Climbed For the Second Straight Year

The hazy skyline of Los Angeles seen from Mount Wilson, CA. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JAE C. HONG
The hazy skyline of Los Angeles seen from Mount Wilson, CA. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JAE C. HONG

Over the last decade, the United States embraced energy efficiency and higher fuel economy standards, causing almost double-digit declines in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But since the last drop in 2012, that trend has gone in the opposite direction for the second time in a row, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report, which tracks emissions across the entire country.

In 2014, the newest year for which data is available, emissions grew a percentage point from 2013, according to the report released Friday. Emissions climbed due to increasing fuel demand for residential and commercial sector heating, as well as a growing use of fuel for vehicles. Industrial production also increased across various sectors, causing some slight growth in industrial sector emissions. The fact that emissions increased in 2014 is particularly concerning since the report also updated 2013 figures showing that the U.S. emitted more than it had originally reported.

This is also significant for the national and international arena because inventories like these are the prime tools countries use to monitor their emissions individually and globally. What’s more, this new data comes a week before hundreds of leaders officially sign the Paris agreement that calls on nations to reduce emissions to prevent further global warming.

Environmentalists said this EPA report is a mixed collection of some good news topped by major revisions to past calculations, which point to improving reporting but a worrisome trend in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions now causing climate change. “What we know is that the United States’ emissions are higher than they have been documented, and we also know that this just adds to the true narrative, which is that there is an incredible urgency for the United States to rapidly decrease its emissions,” said Evan Weber, executive director of U.S. Climate Plan, in an interview with ThinkProgress.

While the report shows U.S. emissions peaked in 2007, the country’s greenhouse gas pollution has increased 7.4 percent since 1990. What’s more, based on updated 2013 figures, methane emissions largely from the oil and gas industry were greater than first reported that year, according to the report. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas which traps heat 86 times as effectively as carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. In 2013, methane discharges from oil and gas were 34 percent higher than previously thought. Methane sources include agriculture practices, landfills, coal mining, and wastewater treatment. Yet the oil and gas sector is the largest of them all, accounting for a third of methane emissions.

This undated handout image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan, shows The Four Corners area, in red, left, is the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003–2009 (dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher). CREDIT: AP Photo/NASA, JPL-Caltech, University of Michigan
This undated handout image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan, shows The Four Corners area, in red, left, is the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003–2009 (dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher). CREDIT: AP Photo/NASA, JPL-Caltech, University of Michigan

“If we are to meet our global climate commitments and stave off the worst effects of climate change, we must continue to transition off of dirty fuels such as oil and gas and onto clean and renewable energy,” said Jessica Eckdish, Sierra Club’s Washington representative, in a statement.

The American Petroleum Institute, the national trade association representing U.S. oil and natural gas, disputed the new methane numbers. “They’ve made a significant modification to the inventory estimates, and we believe that it is seriously flawed,” Kyle Isakower, the group’s vice president of regulatory and economic policy, told the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, U.S. natural gas production reached a record high in 2015, an increase of 5 percent from the previous year, as natural gas prices remained relatively low. Production from Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and North Dakota was responsible for most of this growth, offsetting declines in the rest of the United States, according to theU.S. Energy Information Administration. Much of this increased production comes thanks to hydraulic fracturing, which research says has helped to dramatically increase methane emissions across the country. In fact, though natural gas is often touted as a clean energy source because it emits less carbon when burned than coal does, studies show that methane leaks effectively remove its climate benefits compared to burning coal.

Yet revisions in the inventory show most categories produced more greenhouse gases than first calculated. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 may have been at least 4 percent higher than first reported. And if the EPA used the methodology the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change employed in its Fifth Assessment Report, another 4 percent could be added, according to the EPA report. “If the climate problem were an overweight person, EPA basically just told us that not only did we gain a few pounds this year, but our scale last year was wrong and we were really 8 percent heavier than we thought,” said a source who was connected with the crafting of the report, but was not authorized to officially comment. Improvements in emissions, meanwhile, do appear in the revision, including those showing the substitution of ozone depleting substances, increased grassland carbon sequestration, and lower landfill gas releases.

The EPA didn’t reply to a request for comment by press time.

In 2014, the country’s greenhouse gas production was 6,870 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Power plants were the largest emitters, accounting for 30 percent of greenhouse gas pollution. The transportation sector was the second-largest source with 26 percent, followed closely by industry and manufacturing at 21 percent. The EPA said growing fuel use demand in the residential, commercial, and transportation sectors caused the increase.

CREDIT: Environmental Protection Agency
CREDIT: Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA said in a press release it’s taking “important steps” to cut emissions in part through the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s rule for reducing carbon emissions from power plants now embroiled in a legal stay. The rule is on hold until the D.C. Circuit Court makes a decision on the case, and while many states are in a holding pattern, some are nonetheless working to comply.

The agency also said it’s pressing for increasing fuel efficiency for cars and heavy-duty trucks. It’s reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas industry through regulation. It also pursues emissions cuts through voluntary efforts, too, like the newly-launched Methane Challenge program, a mechanism through which companies can make and track commitments to reduce methane leaks.

Led globally by China, the United States is the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, as it accounts for almost 15 percent of all emissions. But over the last decade, there has been a growing momentum in low-carbon alternatives for the energy sector. According to the EPA, the U.S. is generating three times as much wind power, and 30 times as much solar power, as when President Obama took office. However, last year the country invested 20 percent less money in renewable energy than in 2014, according to study put together by the Frankfurt School and United Nations Environment Program.

“I think it’s important that the international community has an honest understanding of what the United States’ actual efforts on climate change have been,” said Weber, “and that is why this issue of greenhouse gas inventory integrity is so critical for international climate progress.”