Lowest CO2 emissions in the U.S since 1994

Incentives for clean energy systems and use of energy efficient technologies have started to bear fruit for the U.S. This week on Friday it was announced by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) for the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE) that U.S. carbon dioxide emissions fell to their lowest since 1994. Carbon dioxide emission level was peaked in 2007 at 6.02 billion tons (Gt). As of today, it is estimated around 5.24 Gt [1].

There are several factors leading to this result. The biggest one may be the rapid increase in renewable energy technologies across the country for the last couple of years. BNEF report states that cumulative installed solar, wind, geothermal and biomass-based energy sources in the U.S. have doubled since 2008 and become 86 gigawatts [2] . The use of renewable sources for energy production in the US had been almost at the constant level from 1980 to 2008; however, it peaked in 2012 as a result of steep increase between 2008 and 2012, according to the data of U.S. Energy Information Administration [3]. Secondly, from the same source, it is seen that there has been a trend of switching from coal to natural gas in energy generation since 2008. This has an influence on carbon dioxide emission rates because burning natural gas releases almost half as much carbon dioxide as that of coal as shown in the figure below [4].

EIA

The other factor is the tendency towards energy efficient systems, especially in automotive industry. Hybrid engines and fully-electric-powered cars have significant contribution to lowering down the emissions.

The important thing is that the U.S. achieved that reduction in carbon dioxide emissions while sustaining the incline in GDP, thus, improving the economic standards of the public, according to the president of BCSE [5].

Taking all that into account, it is seen that the U.S. is paying more attention to environmentally-friendly solutions in energy production. Although U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that carbon dioxide emission level will raise again until 2040 [6], this prediction is highly dependent on how much popularity the electric vehicles will gain in the near future. Furthermore, the possible change in the attitude of American people towards smaller but highly-efficient engines for fuel economy and environmental purposes plays a role in that prediction. It also affected by improvements in efficiency and installation capacities of renewable energy systems in industry; however, it is reasonable to say that it will be largely determined by trends in transportation.

U.S. Energy Related CO2 Emissions in billion metric tons

U.S. Energy Related CO2 Emissions in billion metric tons

[1]. http://www.bcse.org/factbook/pdfs/BCSE_BNEF_Sustainable_Energy_in_America_2013_Factbook.pdf

[2]. http://e360.yale.edu/digest/us_carbon_emissions_fall_to_the_lowest_level_since_1994/3757/

[3]. Energy Technology and Policy Lecture Notes, ‘Energy Uses in America’ by Dr. Michael E. Webber, 2013

[4]. http://www.naturalgas.org/environment/naturalgas.asp

[5]. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/feb/01/us-carbon-emissions-lowest-levels

[6]. http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/er/pdf/0383er%282013%29.pdf

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Lowest CO2 emissions in the U.S since 1994

  1. evanhegarty

    Even though the Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that carbon dioxide emission levels will be on the rise again until 2040 [6], I believe it is likely that they will level off or rise less than the current prediction. While I do agree that this prediction will be influenced by trends in transportation, I feel that there are many other factors that will accumulate to account for the US carbon dioxide emissions’ future trends. As mentioned in this blog and e360 [2], renewable energies have doubled since 2008 with the US currently producing 86 gigawatts from combined solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass-based energy, but according to BCSE [1], there is much more to our reduction in carbon dioxide emissions than that. While US renewable energy electricity generation has increased from 8.3% to 12.1%, there has been an even more substantial increase in US electricity generation from Natural gas production, which now accounts for 31% of US electricity, up from 22% in 2007 [1]. When you combine this with the trend of reducing total US energy consumption (down 6.4% since 2007) through advances in energy efficiency and smart grid technology implementation, the shift in energy markets from large centralized systems such as coal plants to small distributed power generators including combined heat and power (CHP) generators and small-scale renewables, and with the policies that enable profits to be decoupled from the total amount of energy sold by private utilities [1], it looks promising that the carbon dioxide emission levels in the US will not increase over the next 30 years, but will level off or hopefully even decrease by 2040.

    [1]. http://www.bcse.org/factbook/pdfs/BCSE_BNEF_Sustainable_Energy_in_America_2013_Factbook.pdf

    [2]. http://e360.yale.edu/digest/us_carbon_emissions_fall_to_the_lowest_level_since_1994/3757/

  2. Colin Meehan

    This is really promising news, but I worry that we read too much into temporary trends. A quick look at the BNEF report shows spending on energy efficiency in all energy sectors growing at a fairly linear pace since 2006 [1, p. 59], yet carbon dioxide emissions only began to fall in the U.S. with the onset of the recession in 2009 [2]. Whether this is a result of increased efficiency or a lackluster economic recovery is still difficult to determine, though perhaps the most promising indicator comes from the last year of full data, 2011, in which the GDP grew while energy related CO2 emissions fell [3].

    Additionally, the significant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from 2010 to 2011 was the result of a combination of 3 additional factors beyond a reduction in total energy intensity: a massive increase in hydroelectric output in the Pacific Northwest [4], continued growth in wind energy output [5], and an increase in natural gas generation, all of which combined to result in a precipitous decline in coal usage [6].

    While I agree that we are starting to see some dividends from clean energy and energy efficiency policies, I think that the recent results may be more a result of a combination of uncontrollable factors such as increased snowpack in the Canadian Rockies and low natural gas prices as well as the growth in renewables and efficiency resulting from the policies the OP discusses. I don’t want to throw cold water on the hypothesis, but I think that clean energy policy has been too haphazard and fleeting to be directly responsible for most of the reductions in CO2 emissions from recent years. I certainly agree that the future impact of these technologies on CO2 emissions is likely to be substantial and critical to our efforts to avoid the worst consequences of anthropogenic climate change, but I think that to ensure that outcome a more clear and consistent policy approach toward clean energy is needed. Hopefully the shift in perspective noted above presages such policy.

    [1]. http://www.bcse.org/factbook/pdfs/BCSE_BNEF_Sustainable_Energy_in_America
    [2]. [http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=7890
    [3]. http://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/
    [4]. http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=5070
    [5]. http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=5350
    [6]. http://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/

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