In 2018, United States greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions grew by 2.7%, the second highest annual change since the year 2000. Driven by rapid development in the industrial and transportation sectors and increased heating/AC due to extreme temperatures during summer and winter, CO2 emissions rose in 2018 after 3 years of steady decline.
2019 Estimates Show Some Improvement
After a disappointing year for emissions in the US for 2018, our estimates suggest that 2019 US emissions actually fell by 2.1%. These estimates are based on preliminary economic and energy data from the Rhodion Group.
The decline of 2.1% in the emissions is primarily due to a drop in US coal consumption. Coal-fired power generation has reduced by 18% annually to the current lowest levels since 1975. However it is important to note that there a good deal of the coal reduction was replaced with an increase in natural gas power generation. Despite the tradeoff, overall emissions in the power sector reduced by about 10%, while other economic sectors performed poorly.
Transportation emissions remained flat. Emissions actually increased in the industry and building sector though the increased at a slower rate than 2018.
Overall, the net emissions of greenhouse gases put 2019 slightly higher than in 2016. Currently, the US is at high risk of missing the target of at least a 17% reduction by 2020 end, as pledged under its Copenhagen Accord. At the same time, it is a long way from achieving the 26% to 28% drop by 2025, as pledged under its Paris Agreement.
What’s Behind the Decrease in GHG emissions
The overall shift to renewables and natural gas from coal for power generation is the prime reason why the US has made some progress in reducing GHG emissions. While this has been a trend throughout the last decade, 2019 witnessed a significant drop in the use of coal for power generation.
According to the current estimates done by the Rhodium Group
, there was a decrease of 18% in power generation from coal. This decline is the largest year-on-year change that recorded in US history. Since its peak in 1975, coal-fired generation is currently at its lowest output, and with this continual reduction, we now use roughly half of the coal used in 1975.
The US has been using natural gas as a stop gap between coal-based energy solutions and completely renewable energy sources. The slower pace in infrastructure change will certainly make it more difficult to reach carbon neutrality. While the reduction of coal burning power resulted in the prevention of ~190 million metric tons of GHG emissions, natural gas burning increased our emissions by ~40 million tons. The net of ~150 million tons of emissions equates to about 10% of the energy industries’ annual output. Despite the bittersweet circumstances, this is the most significant reduction in several decades.
Emissions Progress Across All Sectors
Other than the power generation, all other sectors continued the same old trends. Our data suggest that there was a slight decrease in the emissions in the transportation sector, by about 0.3% yearly. At the same time, the emissions from industrial output increased by approximately 0.6%. Indirect building emissions increased by 2.2%. GHG emissions in other sectors, waste, oil, methane gas, land use, and agriculture increased by 4.4% combined.
Considering the sharp increase in industrial emissions, transportation, and building sectors, the current data still suggest some improvement as the increase is not as great as years prior. Based on the 2018 data, a major part of the increase in emissions from building emissions was due to extreme weather conditions. As a result of this, the demand for heating in factories, stores, offices, and homes was particularly high in 2018. In comparison, 2019 had almost the same number days in which heat was required, hence we did not witness another spike. Rather, a nearly consistent trend was seen.
By the end of 2020, the US is supposed to achieve a reduction of 17% based on the Copenhagen Accord, and by the end of 2025, the reductions are supposed to be as much as 26% according to the Paris Agreement. Despite Donald Trump’s attempts to remove the US from the Paris Agreement, many companies have pledged to abide by many of its climate goals and sustainability practices.
Based on our analysis, the US needs to reduce the net GHG emission by more than 5.3% by the end of this year in order to hit the 17% reduction target as pledged under the Copenhagen Accord. This annual drop would be bigger than what the US has experienced, apart from 2009, in which the emissions fell due to the recession. For the Paris Agreement, an annual reduction of at between 2.8% to 3.2% is required yearly until 2025. Considering the fact that US annual reductions haven’t exceeded year over year drop of more than 0.9% since 2005, this seems unlikely. While it is still possible, strong support of the federal and local governments is an absolute must.