I have argued before that America is not doing as bad compared to Europe as many believe, however instead of comparing America’s recent emissions reductions with other countries let’s consider if it is on course to meet its targets for 2020. In straightforward terms this is for greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 to be 17% lower than they were in 2005.
The Guardian recently reported that official projections indicated emissions would be down 9%, and not 17%. Official projections however are always buyer beware, and are often dangerous material in the hands of someone with an agenda and an unwillingness to bother figuring out the purpose of those projections.
So, where do America’s emissions stand right now? Is America on course to meet the 17% target? Let’s look at the numbers.
(Unfortunately, as Hans Rosling points out here, carbon emissions data is in desperate need of a shake up, and official US emissions figures do not appear to go beyond 2010. So, I’ll have to get estimates from a few different sources, and combine. All of the estimates will be based on carbon dioxide emissions, so the overall percentage changes in GHG emissions may be slightly different, but I expect not by much.)
Let’s begin with the International Energy Agency’s figures. They reported in early 2011, that the US’s emissions had dropped by 7.7% between 2006 and 2011. For some reason the IEA has not published (or I cannot find) a continual time series between 2005 and 2011. However, their other data indicates that emissions were 1.5% higher in 2005 than in the 2006. So, the IEA is saying that there was a 9.1% drop in US emissions between 2005 and 2011. The IEA however has not produced estimates for 2012, so I’ll use something else for that later.
A second source of emissions estimates is the EDGAR data set produced by the European Union. Their estimates are very in line with the IEA’s: an 8.9% drop in US CO2 emissions between 2005 and 2011. Again, they have yet to produce estimates for 2012.
Let’s split the difference and say US CO2 emissions decreased by 9% between 2005 and 2011.
What happened in 2012?
Let’s start by considering energy use. For the first 9 months of the year total US energy consumption was down 3%. Full year figures do not appear to be released so far, however it is almost certain that energy consumption has gone down in 2012.
A key, if controversial, cause of the decline in US emissions has been the switch from coal to gas generation for electricity. What happened this year? The switch was in fact the biggest on record. Coal use decreased by 11% and gas went up by about 22%.
So, the decline in energy use and reduction in carbon intensity in the electricity sector should have reduced US CO2 emissions this year. How much? The EIA estimates CO2 emissions from the energy sector went down by 3.4% this year (see page 11). Based on the current split of US emissions by sector, below, we can take 3.4% as a very good estimate of total CO2 emissions decline this year.
So, if we combine this with the estimates for 2005-2011 emissions reductions, we get an overall estimate of US emissions going down by 12% between 2005 and 2012. Now, there is a serious debate over whether these reductions can continue, but it is important to recognise the real progress America has made in reducing emissions. And that these reductions are currently greater than more or less any country in the world.
(My own view is that the pieces are now probably in place for America to turn that 12% drop into a 17% drop by 2020. That’s probably worth a separate post, but debate is welcome in the comments section.)
I’ll finish by making an observation. US emissions are on the decline. Yet in more or less every op-ed piece berating Obama for inaction on climate change this decline in emissions does not even warrant a mention, let alone some consideration of its causes. The unwillingness of people to talk about the decline in emissions is baffling. This quite obviously should be used as political leverage, and as momentum to build on. And as I said earlier the US’s carbon emissions are now declining faster than most of the countries US climate commentators say are showing the US how things should be done.
Thanks to Jonathan Foley for prompting this post during a Twitter conversation.
[Correction: earlier version said America's emissions declined more in percentage terms than any other OCED country since 2006. Now corrected to be total emissions. A handful of countries reduced their emissions more than the US since 2006, however most of them appear to be countries that suffered severe economic collapse post 2006, such as Ireland and Spain.]
Thanks to Lindsay Wilson for pointing out the mistake.]