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.


  1. When it comes to Romm it would be great to see an 'omissions reduction strategy' and see him try and put things in context.

    But for most activists this is just too big an ask. No wonder the trust in them is declining so subtantially.

  2. In 2009 US GDP decreased by 2.4% and energy-related emissions dropped by 7.0%. So the relationship of emissions to GDP dropped by no less than 4.7% last year - not by just over 2.0%. The drop in 2009 was more than "a small, marginal change."

  3. -2-Ian Castles

    Thanks, that first graph had an error. I have updated it. The BEA uses a bit different GDP numbers than EIA reports.

    With 2006 at close to a 4.0% decarbonization I don't see 2009 at 4.5% as representing evidence that reducing emissions is "not that hard."

    To the contrary, the exceptional nature of the economy in 2009 and its relatively small impact on decarbonization suggests the opposite.

    Thanks for the close look at the data!

  4. I wonder what the trend would look like if it included the CO2 footprint of net imports.

  5. I find the charts and the vocabulary rather misleading. "Decarbonization" in relative terms still means growth in absolute amount. If the concern is reaching a climate tipping point, we still get there.

  6. -5-Craig 1st

    You are right I'll update with the terms defined.

    Decarbonization does not necessarily mean growth in emissions, as 2009 shows. The rate has to be higher than GDP growth.

  7. 'The death of coal' is quite misleading.

    Most Electric Utilities have a mix of power plants. They also have to deal with peak power and baseload power.

    Temporary price fluctuations in a specific instance can impact the order of utilization.

    I.E. If natural gas inventories reach storage capacity then there are 'sales', which the utilities take advantage of by running the natural gas plants for 'base load' rather then 'peak load'.

  8. Roger,

    Taking at look at slide #19 from this DOE presentation suggests that NEW coal-fired power in the U.S. is indeed projected to decline to near-zero levels by 2020.

    So is this just an argument about semantics?

  9. -8-Marlowe

    Thanks for the interesting link (here it is corrected:


    It is more than semantics ... I think that the slide that you point to may say more about the timescales of planning horizons than anything else. But let's just assume that there will be no new US coal after 2020. Coal is presently 45% of US electricity, and if the US is going to expand capacity until 2020, then I have a hard time calling that dynamic the "death of coal."

    The most startling figure in that presentation is the off-the-charts new build for coal in China. Wow.

  10. Also, here is the latest EIA US energy outlook for consumption:


    Does that look like the "death of coal"?

  11. Roger,

    Thanks for correcting the link. I'm glad you brought up the EIA Outlook figures. You're right they do suggest quite a disconnect with the new build projections from the slide deck I mentioned earlier. I don't have any data on the age of the coal fleet by generating unit handy, but I suspect that most of them would be reaching the end of their useful lives by 2030 at the latest. So in that sense I think youcan make the case for the 'death of coal' -- in the U.S.

    The downer of course is that the Chinese don't seem to be following suit as you noted...

  12. Roger, I don't see what is incorrect about saying that reducing emissions turns out to be easy. Evidently it's as easy as having a recession.

    Hehe. Kind of revealing how advocates of emissions reductions are cheering for the recession induced emissions decreases. Shows their true colors.