The U.S. Energy Picture: Cleaner and More Efficient — For Now

By Jonathan Marshall

The plague known as “Washington gridlock” has all but disabled national energy policy of late. So it’s both surprising and heartening for anyone concerned about climate disruption to learn that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions across the United States declined sharply last year. Even better, after several years of decline, they dropped to levels last seen in 1994.

A decline of 3.8 percent in U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions in 2012 was the largest drop since the 2009 recession, and came despite a 2.8 percent increase in gross domestic product (GDP), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In all, there was a 5.1 percent decrease in the amount of energy needed to produce each dollar of GDP last year, and a dip of about 1.4 percent in the amount of CO2 emissions per unit of energy.

Some of that good news was simply a result of milder weather, but increased vehicle fuel efficiency played a significant part, as did continued substitution of cleaner natural gas for coal in electric power production.

The trend toward cleaner and more efficient use of energy has been continuing for years. The carbon intensity of the U.S. economy, measured as tons of CO2 per million dollars of GDP, is today less than half what it was in 1970, and about a third of its level in 1950.

But serious reductions in absolute levels of energy-related CO2 emissions began only in 2006. Since then, emissions have only risen in two years, 2007 and 2010. Over this period, the electricity sector has led the way in reducing emissions, thanks not only to the greater use of natural gas, but also to increased reliance on generation from renewables and nuclear plants.

Unfortunately, as the Washington Post’s Brad Plumer points out, the news might not stay good. U.S. emissions have been rising in 2013, and are expected to keep rising for several years — a reminder that we can’t count on luck or natural forces to get us out of our climate bind.

And, as those NASA photos of Planet Earth taught us years ago, the United States is not an island. The rest of the world keeps pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year, led by China. A report issued earlier this year by the International Energy Agency said that unless emissions trends change soon, the globe could warm by as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit later this century. As IEA’s chief economist warned, that “would be a disaster for all countries.”

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