U.S. Carbon-Dioxide Emissions Fell 11 Percent Since 2007

The recession played a part, but so did a change in the way Americans use energy.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
Oct. 11, 2013, 5:41 a.m.

Emis­sions fig­ures are in mil­lion tons of car­bon; for tons of CO2, mul­tiply by 44/12. Source: Com­piled by Earth Policy In­sti­tute with 1950-1993 from “Car­bon Di­ox­ide Emis­sions from En­ergy Con­sump­tion by Source, 1949-2011,” Table 11.1 in U.S. (Bri­an Mc­Gill)Between 2007 and 2011, the amount of car­bon di­ox­ide the United States spewed in­to the air de­creased by 2 mil­lion tons, or 11 per­cent. Ac­count­ing for part of the de­crease, ex­plains the Earth Policy In­sti­tute, is the re­ces­sion. When the eco­nomy slows, car­bon emis­sions slow with it. But our habits have changed as well, and in the past few years Amer­ica really has got­ten “green­er.”

Cars have be­come more ef­fi­cient, and emis­sions from oil are down about 100 mil­lion tons since the middle of the last dec­ade. We’re also driv­ing less — na­tion­al miles driv­en peaked in 2007. Now, the Earth Policy In­sti­tute ex­plains, “more cars stay parked be­cause more people live in urb­an areas, opt for pub­lic trans­it, work re­motely, or re­tire and thus no longer com­mute to work.” Factor in the de­cline of coal power, and the small but sig­ni­fic­ant rise of wind en­ergy, and the U.S. is 11 per­cent green­er than it was just a few years ago. 

And this happened, more or less, without a con­cer­ted fed­er­al ef­fort. “U.S. car­bon emis­sions have de­clined at an im­press­ive rate giv­en the ab­sence of any co­hes­ive fed­er­al cli­mate-change policy,” the Yale For­um on Cli­mate Change ex­plains. “The U.S. has ac­tu­ally man­aged to make sig­ni­fic­ant pro­gress to­ward its long-aban­doned Kyoto Pro­tocol tar­get to re­duce emis­sions 7 per­cent be­low 1990 levels.”

Gran­ted, even though the levels have dropped, car­bon di­ox­ide con­tin­ues to ac­cu­mu­late in the at­mo­sphere. There is cer­tainly more CO2 in the air today than there was in 2007 (and while the U.S. is a ma­jor source of green­house gas emis­sions — about 16 per­cent — it cer­tainly isn’t the only one).

But this is a prom­ising trend con­sid­er­ing re­cent re­search from the journ­al Nature that pre­dicts when cli­mate change will have fun­da­ment­ally altered loc­al cli­mates. The study spells out two di­ver­ging scen­ari­os for Earth. One is busi­ness as usu­al, in which cit­ies like Wash­ing­ton and New York will have a rad­ic­ally altered cli­mate (di­ver­ging from long-his­tor­ic­al norms) by 2047. But if we sig­ni­fic­antly re­duce the amount of car­bon emis­sions, that date could stretch to 2072.

The de­veloped na­tions of the world will have to lead the way, the re­port con­cludes, as the first coun­tries to feel the im­pacts of cli­mate change will be poorer na­tions in trop­ic­al cli­mates. The au­thors write:

… any pro­gress to de­crease the rate of on­go­ing cli­mate change will re­quire a big­ger com­mit­ment from de­veloped coun­tries to de­crease their emis­sions but will also re­quire more ex­tens­ive fund­ing of so­cial and con­ser­va­tion pro­grams in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries to min­im­ize the im­pacts of cli­mate change. Our res­ults on the pro­jec­ted tim­ing of cli­mate de­par­ture from re­cent vari­ab­il­ity shed light on the ur­gency of mit­ig­at­ing green­house-gas emis­sions if wide­spread changes in glob­al biod­iversity and hu­man so­ci­et­ies are to be pre­ven­ted.

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