05 May 2010

US Emisisons Reductions: Business as Usual

[UPDATE: FT Energy Source is similarly over the top in their interpretation of the EIA report, writing: "The death of US coal, it seems, is marching on." With more than 45% share of US electricity generation, the death of US coal is hardly "marching on."]

[Note: This post has been updated. The first graph had an error. Sorry!]

Joe Romm is all excited that US energy-related emissions dropped by about 7% in 2009. However, the drop represents little more than a small, marginal change from historical trends in the relationship of emissions and the economy, as shown by the graph above.

Using data from the EIA and the BEA, the graph above shows that the rate of decarbonization (the change in carbon dioxide emissions to GDP) of the US economy indeed did increase to above 4.5% in 2009, but that is only slightly above rates observed in a number of years in recent decades. To achieve aggressive emissions reductions targets for 2020 and 2050 as proposed in various US policy proposals would require annual rates of decarbonization of 5% or more, sustained over decades.

To suggest, as Romm does, that "It really isn’t bloody hard" to reduce US emissions is to be highly misleading (to put it kindly). As soon as economic growth returns to positive values, we will see US emissions increase once again. Switching to natural gas is never going to be a successful strategy for a sustainable acceleration of the decarbonization of the US economy. The real lesson from 2009 is that fundamental nature of the US energy economy has not changed much, despite the economic downturn, and to suggest otherwise is just incorrect. The economy has become marginally more efficient and marginally less carbon intensive.

The emissions reduction challenge remains huge -- don't be fooled otherwise.