U.S. Headed for Massive Decline in Carbon Emissions

Earth Policy Institute


By Lester R. Brown

Emissions Drop 9 Percent in Last Two Years

For years now, many members of Congress have insisted that cutting carbon emissions was difficult, if not impossible. It is not. During the two years since 2007, carbon emissions have dropped 9 percent. While part of this drop is from the recession, part of it is also from efficiency gains and from replacing coal with natural gas, wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

[social_buttons]The United States has ended a century of rising carbon emissions and has now entered a new energy era, one of declining emissions. Peak carbon is now history. What had appeared to be hopelessly difficult is happening at amazing speed.

For a country where oil and coal use have been growing for more than a century, the fall since 2007 is startling. In 2008, oil use dropped 5 percent, coal 1 percent, and carbon emissions by 3 percent. Estimates for 2009, based on U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) data for the first nine months, show oil use down by another 5 percent. Coal is set to fall by 10 percent. Carbon emissions from burning all fossil fuels dropped 9 percent over the two years.

Beyond the cuts already made, there are further massive reductions in the policy pipeline. Prominent among them are stronger automobile fuel-economy standards, higher appliance efficiency standards, and financial incentives supporting the large-scale development of wind, solar, and geothermal energy. (See data at www.earthpolicy.org.)

Efforts to reduce fossil fuel use are under way at every level of government—national, state, and city—as well as in corporations, utilities, and universities. And millions of climate-conscious, cost-cutting Americans are altering their lifestyles to reduce energy use.

For its part, the federal government—the largest U.S. energy consumer, with some 500,000 buildings and 600,000 vehicles—announced in early October 2009 that it is setting its own carbon-cutting goals. These include reducing vehicle fleet fuel use 30 percent by 2020, recycling at least 50 percent of waste by 2015, and buying environmentally responsible products.

Electricity use is falling partly because of gains in efficiency. The potential for further cuts is evident in the wide variation in energy efficiency among states. The Rocky Mountain Institute calculates that if the 40 least-efficient states were to reach the electrical efficiency of the 10 most-efficient ones, national electricity use would be reduced by one third. This would allow the equivalent of 62 percent of the country’s 617 coal-fired power plants to be closed.

Actions are being taken to realize this potential. For several years DOE failed to write the regulations needed to implement appliance efficiency legislation that Congress had already passed. Within days of taking office, President Obama instructed the agency to write the regulations needed to realize these potentially vast efficiency gains as soon as possible.

The energy efficiency revolution that is now under way will transform everything from lighting to transportation. With lighting, for example, shifting from incandescent bulbs to the newer light-emitting diodes (LEDs), combined with motion sensors to turn lights off in unoccupied spaces, can cut electricity use by more than 90 percent. Los Angeles, for example, is replacing its 140,000 street lights with LEDs—and cutting electricity and maintenance costs by $10 million per year.

The carbon-cutting movement is gaining momentum on many fronts. In July, the Sierra Club—coordinator of the national anti-coal campaign—announced the hundredth cancellation of a proposed plant since 2001. This battle is leading to a de facto moratorium on new coal plants. Despite the coal industry’s $45-million annual budget to promote “clean coal,” utilities are giving up on coal and starting to close plants. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), with 11 coal plants (average age 47 years) and a court order to install over $1 billion worth of pollution controls, is considering closing its plant near Rogersville, Tennessee, along with the six oldest units out of eight in its Stevenson, Alabama, plant.

  1. Duncan

    Another postcard from fantasy land.

    Emissions dropped 9% because of the worst recession since the 1970’s. That’s a temporary drop, not a trend.

    0 coal plants have been closed or abandoned due to wind or solar power. Those are PR efforts, guaranteed never to be more than window-dressing. The new planned power plants are all “natural” gas, which is still a polluting, CO2-spewing fossil fuel. It’s a little less polluting and CO2-spewing than anthracite, but it’s still *not clean*.

    Anyone reading this article who’s serious about addressing global warming, the main answer has to be nuclear. Shunning nuclear because of misunderstandings about waste or lies about proliferation is no longer an attractive posture.

    We dithered enough when the republicans were in power. Now that we have the white house and congress, should we waste another decade pursuing solutions we already know won’t work?

  2. Bobby B.

    @Lester: There is activity that you can proudly label “positive”, however, Duncan is correct with his claim that the current emission reductions are largely due to the recession. Also, any “improvement” that you can claim in the U.S. is being more than offset by industrial growth in China, India, and the third world.

    @Duncan: I have to assume that you are a Democrat since you said “we have the white house and congress” above. I am a conservative and agree that nuclear needs to play a larger role in meeting tomorrow’s energy needs. However, I have never met a left-leaning Democrat who was pro-nuclear. Since you risk being maligned and excoriated by your fellow Democrats, it may be time to re-evaluate your politics. 😉

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