How much are US carbon emissions declining?

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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%.

Twitter   CarbonCounter_  Wow. Huge shift from coal to ...

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.]


15 thoughts on “How much are US carbon emissions declining?

    roddycampbell said:
    January 27, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    I read, as I’m sure you do, US climate blogs that rant about lack of ‘climate action’ and legislation/regulation.

    They wilfully miss two things;

    firstly that the US does not control climate, with its 17% (?) and falling share of global emissions; that unilateral action is severely limited in actual impact on ppm

    secondly what you point out here, that US has the best record on emissions reduction. That this is by accident, as a result of market forces not regulation, might give all climate concerned a small pause for thought. That the EU with its tougher approach has achieved rather less (nothing?) might reinforce that pause.

    it’s not at all clear to me what Western policies might bring about improvement versus BAU in global emissions. But your post coupled with the EU experience do show that 20:20’s, ETS, CCA’s and so on are powerless compared to a collapsing gas price, and will be powerless in the reverse case too, as and when the coal/gas relative reverses.


      Robert Wilson said:
      January 27, 2013 at 5:28 pm


      I must disagree with your analysis. Only about 1/3rd of US emissions decreases can really be attributed to gas. Don’t have time to find references, but only about half of the reductions are in the electricity sector, and just over half of that is attributable to coal-gas switching. So, your statement seems to be flat out wrong.

      As for “unilateral action” being severely limited, this is mere excuse making. I like to call this the China Defence. It adds up to nothing. Many shale gas pushers also use this defence, but then turn around and suggest China should expand shale gas. Well, shale gas was not developed in China. Thus disproving the silly idea that unilateral action is pointless.

      Also, the EU has not achieved rather less, or nothing as you imply.

      It’s also totally false as you seem to suggest that regulations are ineffective. Coal is largely being regulated out of business in Europe. The idea you can reduce emissions by relying purely on the free market is an utter nonsense. Regulations and carbon pricing are essential. Such ideas of course are normally promoted by people who don’t care that much about carbon emissions in the first place.


    roddycampbell said:
    January 27, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    ok, fair enough, especially my over-attribution of US emissions decline to coal/gas.:

    there’s a lot in your reply, thank you.

    I’m trying, and it is hard, to link policy to what your post is about – there may of course be no linkage, but there may be something to learn. To observe, as you have, that US emissions have fallen further than anyone’s without any climate policy, versus EU with’s track record, warrants explanation, and might or might not say something about policy efficacy. (Where does the other half within electricity come from, and the other half overall is a mix of ‘efficiency’ and exporting production while continuing to consume?)

    I don’t understand your second paragraph. Re unilateral action, if the aim is to reduce global emissions to keep below xxx ppm then it’s legitimate to ask if EU policy so far has been effective in its own right, in reducing EU emissions, and if so how and where and against what counterfactual, and whether it has had any impact on global emissions by ‘leading’ others to follow, in terms of taking ?

    (Not sure what a shale gas pusher is – if we found new gas fields in the North Sea we would licence them. That they are onshore raises local environmental issues, that’s the only difference that I can see. Climate wise they are the same.)

    Do you think EU policy has been effective in reducing emissions, ie has achieved something material? Am I wrong in saying EU has achieved ‘rather less’? I thought that was part of the point of your post, that the US has had larger falls. (If you GDP-adjust the falls, have they done even better given EU shit GDP performance?)

    ‘Coal is largely being regulated out of business in Europe.’ – I thought EU usage wasn’t falling, or do you mean in years to come? Is there an easy link for EU coal usage?

    “The idea you can reduce emissions by relying purely on the free market is an utter nonsense.” – I didn’t say that. I said the market is powerful.

    Again, not sure what your last sentence means, I’d need to be clearer what you meant by ‘such ideas’. I would say that while ‘impact denialists’, ie those who minimise the dangers, certainly tend to criticise policies as useless there are plenty of strong critics who are not denialists, eg Helm. You can’t always choose your bedfellows.

    Off now for evening …..


      Robert Wilson said:
      January 27, 2013 at 6:21 pm


      This is going too far off topic, so I’m not going to respond any further.

      However, in future, please try to avoid questions about matters of fact in the comments section. You have asked a pile of questions in this comment. In future please do some googling and bring some facts to the table instead of asking me to provide them for you. I run this in my spare time, so providing factual answers for you when you can easily get the answers with a quick web search is not what this blog is about. It’s also off putting to other potential commenters.



    Lindsay said:
    January 27, 2013 at 11:05 pm

    Nice post Robert,

    although I must say you are making things harder for yourself than they really need to be on the data front. The EIA publish everything by year and sector, although very late. But to be honest the STEO you linked to had provisional 2012 data in it.

    For example, CO2 from energy consumption in the US is:

    1990: 5020 Mt
    2005: 5974 Mt
    2012: 5305 Mt

    So emissions are down 11% from 2005 to 2012, but up 6% from 1990 to 2012.

    Perhaps most interestingly, 55% of the emissions drop since 2005 can be attributed to reduced petroleum emissions. So while people constantly talk about fracking, they often miss that Americans are driving less miles per capita, plus getting incrementally better fuel economy. I would add that CAFE standards is an area where one could credit Obama’s team, and that the rise in US coal exports also takes some shine of power emissions reductions.

    Anyhow, as I said, your numbers are solid, but you could really be making it easier on yourself. For non-energy data you probably need to wait for the EPA, which are only up to 2010 currently.



      Robert Wilson said:
      January 27, 2013 at 11:24 pm


      The reason I used these other sources first was because they are estimates for all emissions, not just energy emissions. 1 year percentage changes in energy emissions are probably close enough, but the 06-11 figures are probably over too long a time period to be reliable.

      Also I think it’s important to look at more than one estimate because the methodology varies a bit.

      I was also trying to make a point about the bad state of emissions data. Just pointing and saying “here is a website with the figures” would not be very informative to the reader.


    costrike said:
    January 27, 2013 at 11:47 pm

    Interesting analysis and certainly positives to the trend. While the U.S. is becoming a smaller portion of global emissions, I believe the farther (and importantly more publicly) we go, the more it will encourage other countries to follow suit. Were we to enact a carbon tax, it might make it easier for other countries to do so. We could then provide trade advantages to participating countries thereby leveling the playing field. This would make it harder for businesses to cry foul over the tax.
    That said, something has to be done to start weaning China off of coal. The sooner the better. Check out the chart here which shows global coal consumption and the same metric minus China. It is truly alarming.


    Lindsay said:
    January 27, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    The article refers to the largest decline in carbon emissions, in terms of Mt, which is true.

    You have use ‘dropped by a greater percentage than any other OECD country’.

    This will not hold for Italy, Spain, Greece or Ireland, possibly one or two more. Its late, I’m being picky, I genuinely like the content.

    As per above, I take your point on using other sources. Sorry for the twitter bombing. Just started with it, have no idea about conventions.



      Robert Wilson said:
      January 27, 2013 at 11:54 pm

      I agree. Just corrected the post.


    Steve Easterbrook said:
    January 28, 2013 at 1:51 am

    Robert – thanks for the analysis. But I’m wondering how much you ought to factor the stagnant US economy into this. Emissions reductions since 2006 might not sound so great, given that the economy tanked in 2008, and has barely recovered. If you calculate emissions per GDP, you might get some sense of how much of this reduction will be lost if and when the US economy starts booming again.


      Robert Wilson said:
      January 28, 2013 at 3:17 am

      Thanks Steve

      Very good question. The issue is very broad and I don’t want it to go too far off topic, so I’ll just make a couple of points.

      1. Emissions per GDP may in these circumstances give misleading predictions. Electricity generation has undergone a vast shift since 2008. Pre 08 rises in electricity emissions are probably not that indicative of future increases. Shale gas is now impacting other sectors, though my knowledge of those is lacking.

      2. A problem with this post is that it is talking purely about carbon production. US coal exports have gone up significantly in the last few years to slightly offset the emissions reductions, though not as much as some have claimed. This partly feed into the difficulty with using emissions per GDP. The economic benefits from coal mining will still accrue, but the emissions will go on someone else’s books. The counter argument to this is that US shale gas production is pulling the US out of the international market, making gas cheaper than it would be, and thus mean there is more coal-gas fuel switching internationally. Some of the coal exports is also just being burned in place of coal that would have been burned anyway.

      From a climate change perspective it’s probably better to take a more holistic view than what I did in the article. However, this is how things work in the Kyoto protocol, and there are few signs of trying to change this. Factoring those things in will probably give you a very different result, as it does in the UK


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