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Closer Than You Think: Downward Trend in U.S. CO2 Emissions Puts Target Within Reach

Dan Lashof

Posted July 20, 2012

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Carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels in the United States have fallen by almost 9 percent since 2005, while the economy expanded by more than 5 percent. The forecast for 2020 assuming a continuation of current policies is that emissions will be about 10 percent below 2005 levels, in sharp contrast to the 25 percent increase forecast a few years ago. That puts the 17 percent reduction target embraced by President Obama squarely within reach.

These are the key findings of an issue brief published by NRDC today. I have posted previously on the incredible shrinking carbon pollution forecast. Earlier this week Dave Roberts at Grist posted a nice commentary on the recent declines in U.S. emissions and my colleague Ralph Cavanagh recently posted on the unexpectedly good news regarding energy trends. Today’s issue brief pulls together information on recent emission trends and the current forecast in one place, and offers some insights into what’s going on.

Figure 2 in the issue brief reveals that almost half of the emission reductions from 2005 to 2011 came from power plants, followed by the transportation sector at a little more than one-quarter. Electricity consumption increased by 1.2 percent during this period while driving decreased by about 2 percent. That means that the 10 percent reduction in emissions from power plants is due to a shift toward lower-emitting generation sources, particularly natural gas and wind, while more efficient vehicles are responsible for most of the 7 percent reduction from transportation.

Looking forward emissions are expected to fall slightly as the oldest and dirtiest coal plants retire and as more efficient vehicles continue to enter the fleet. Federal carbon pollution standards for existing power plants under the Clean Air Act provide the largest opportunity to further reduce emissions and meet or exceed the 17 percent reduction target. That could be accomplished by a 10 percent reduction in electricity demand relative to the current forecast, or by increasing reliance on renewable sources of electricity by 10 percentage points (i.e., from 14 percent of total generation currently forecast to 24 percent of total generation), or a combination of these measures, assuming these gains were all used to reduce generation from high-emitting coal-fired power plants.

It’s good news that U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide are, at long last, on a downward trajectory. Of course, the reductions achieved so far are far from adequate and there is no guarantee that they will continue as the economy recovers. Nonetheless, the 17 percent reduction target embraced by President Obama is squarely within reach despite the gridlock in Congress. With strong standards to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, a robust drive to capture the full range of energy efficiency opportunities, and effective measures to reduce emissions of methane and other heat-trapping gases, we can meet and exceed this goal and get on track to the deep emission reductions we need to protect our health and environment from the worst consequences of climate change.

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Bruce NillesJul 20 2012 05:28 PM


thanks for helping amplify this message - we are making progress, and can continue to make progress as we continue to retire coal plant after coal plant and replace it with cleaner energy options. Given that coal burning was about 2 billion tons of the problem annually, reducing coal use remains a huge opportunity to meet and exceed the modest Copenhagen carbon reduction goals.

I agree a new EPA rule to limit emissions from existing power plants could be most helpful, if properly designed. At the same time, let's not forget that new and existing EPA rules that we have worked so hard w/your colleagues in DC to get across the finish line (MATS, CSPAR, BART, SO2 NAAQS) are a huge driver for pushing coal out, as are the multiple state efforts to hold the coal industry to account with enforcement actions and before PUCs, as we are doing w/your colleagues in Chicago. There are more proposed rules that are also in the works that can further help, notably a new PM and ozone standards, as well as a new cross state rule once these new PM/ozone standards are implemented.

In short, there are a variety of policy measures and other tactics to reduce the huge contribution that coal makes to the global warming problem. We would be remiss if we put our eggs all in one basket, one silver bullet policy mechanism, and did not push on all of them.


KMHJul 23 2012 10:18 AM

Would you please publish the source of the data here?

Dan LashofJul 23 2012 10:39 AM

References for all of the data used in this post are included in the Issue Brief.

Michael ManiatesJul 23 2012 05:26 PM

Dan: The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a nice piece of climate change last week, with prominent quotes from you. I've been meaning for some time to thank you for your good work. MM

MikeJul 25 2012 12:28 PM

Once the industrial world starts caring they will be able to make a big impact.

R. Paul WilliamsonJul 30 2012 11:46 AM

This is indeed good news and I hope it gets even better. However, until we get a viable, long term sustainable energy plan in place ("Winning the Energy Wars") we will not get a hold on this tremendous problem. Poor energy planning begets a poor future for our kids and our country.

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