Climate change stunner: USA leads world in CO2 cuts since 2006
Posted: Jun 4th, 2012
Every year the International Energy Agency (IEA) calculates humanity's CO2 pollution from burning fossil fuels. And once again, the overall story line is one of ever-increasing emissions:
"Global carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel combustion reached a record high of 31.6 gigatonnes in 2011."The world has yet to figure out how to stop the relentless increase in climate pollution. But mixed in with all the bad news there was one shining ray of hope. One of the biggest obstacles to climate action may be shifting. As the IEA highlighted:
"US emissions have now fallen by 430 Mt (7.7%) since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions. This development has arisen from lower oil use in the transport sector … and a substantial shift from coal to gas in the power sector."How big is a cut of 430 million tonnes of CO2? It's equal to all CO2 from all Canadians outside Alberta. From a US perspective, it's equal to eliminating the combined emissions of ten western states: Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada.
It seems the planet's biggest all-time CO2 polluter is finally reducing its emissions.
Not only that, but as my top chart shows, US CO2 emissions are falling even faster than what President Obama pledged in the global Copenhagen Accord.
Breaking the global log jam?Until now, the failure by the USA to make significant emission cuts has been at the center of the global deadlock over what to do about climate pollution. Many of the biggest polluting nations -- such as China, India, Russia, Canada, Australia, and Brazil -- have been reluctant to create policies to reduce CO2 as long as the biggest bad-boy of them all, the USA, wasn't joining in.
But now, Americans are both promising CO2 cuts and actually doing it. In doing so they are leading the world in total CO2 reductions. Can they keep it up? There are many hopeful signs.
Take a look at my chart below in which I've added USA coal, oil and natural gas data. As the IEA pointed out, it is the plunging use of oil and coal that is driving the decline in CO2.
Let's take a look at the reasons why oil and coal are declining.
Coal is a "dead man walking"Coal use in the US plunged 13 percent in the last six years as natural gas and renewables took its place.
Duetsche Bank has called coal use in the US a "dead man walkin'" saying:
"Banks won’t finance them. Insurance companies won’t insure them. The EPA is coming after them…And the economics to make it clean don’t work."From a climate standpoint, top NASA climate scientist James Hansen is more blunt:
"Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet. Our global climate is nearing tipping points. Changes are beginning to appear, and there is a potential for explosive changes with effects that would be irreversible"In the USA, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign has become a hugely mobilized and successful campaign that has helped stop 150 proposed coal plants and helped retire 110 existing coal plants. Lots of Americans are fed up with coal pollution, and many are now taking effective action. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg alone gave $50 million of his own money to the Beyond Coal campaign.
The US EPA just passed new clean air regulations that will cause the oldest, dirtiest and least efficient coal plants to shut down while also making it very hard to build new ones.
Prices for alternatives to coal -- like natural gas, solar and wind -- are falling rapidly. Even the most expensive of these, solar without any subsidies, is now cheaper than building new coal plants in some of the sunniest parts of the US.
Many forces point to a continuing decline in US coal burning.
Oil is pricing itself out of its largest marketThe Americans buy more oil than any other nation on earth. But, as I wrote last year, rapidly rising oil prices are driving a big decline in America's oil use. The price of oil has more than doubled since 2005. Double the price of a commodity and people will use less.
Sure enough, the decline in US oil consumption since 2005 has been dramatic. Americans now buy two million fewer barrels of oil every day. That's like shutting off three Keystone-XL-sized pipelines.
But despite buying less oil, the Americans' bill for it rose by $250 billion a year. That is an extra $1,000 per adult every year -- for less oil. Ouch.
When it comes to dollars, Americans pay attention. Maybe that is why even the auto makers stood side by side with Obama as he announced regulations forcing cars and light trucks in the USA to improve their miles-per-gallon by 40 per cent this decade. As vehicles become more efficient oil use will fall further.
Since almost all oil in US is used for transportation, the table is set for continuing declines in oil emissions too.
Living in the 1960sHere is the biggest shocker of all: the average American's CO2 emissions are down to levels not seen since 1964 -- over half a century ago.
Way back in 1964, Americans were listening to speeches by President Johnson and Malcolm X. Racial segregation was still legal and the KKK were kidnapping and killing black Americans. The Vietnam war was just getting started and Disney's Mary Poppins had its world premier. IBM's screaming hot new System/360 computer took up a fair sized room when it debuted that year. It was also a thousand times less powerful than today's iPhone. Cell phones of course didn't exist. Neither did video games, personal computers, the internet or even the ability to rent a movie to watch at home.
It was another age, and a long time ago. But as my chart below show, Americans are returning to fossil fuel consumption levels from that distant era.
Per person, Americans are back to 1960 levels of oil consumption. Oil is the biggest source of CO2 in the USA. Now with rising oil prices, new vehicle regulations and the emergence of electric cars it looks like the USA's biggest source of CO2 will continue to fall. Considering that Americans could cut oil use in half and still use more per person than Europeans, there is clearly lots of room for big declines ahead.
Coal is the number two source of CO2 for Americans. Today the average American burns an amount similar to what they did in 1955, and even less than they did in the 1940s. Like oil, the forces aligned against coal in the USA seem to point to a continuing long term decline in coal CO2.
Historically, no nation has done more to cause the climate crisis than the USA. Today, Americans are still in the top tier of CO2 emitters per person -- along with Canadians, Australians and Saudis. The dirty four. But it is exactly America's historical role of biggest and dirtiest that makes their sharp decline in CO2 pollution so noteworthy and potentially game changing at the global level.