U.S. Emissions Reach 20-Year Low, but its not time to congratulate ourselves just yet!
Climate scientists are getting their fair share of surprises this year, from the record-breaking ice melt in the Arctic to the fact that first-quarter U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have hit their lowest point since 1992. CO2 emissions from energy consumption for the January-March period fell to 1.34 billion metric tons, down 8 percent from a year ago. While the depressed economy and rising renewable energy generation have contributed to emissions reductions in the past few years, the early 2012 low-point is due mainly to a combination of three factors: the relatively warm winter, reduced gasoline demand, and the continued decline in coal-fired electricity.
Carbon emissions from energy consumption fell to 1.34 billion metric tons. (EIA)
The declining demand for coal power is especially significant. Although emissions from natural gas and petroleum each dropped nearly 3 percent from the same period in 2011 (mainly because of lower heating demands in the mild winter), coal emissions fell 18 percent, to their lowest point since 1986.
The first half of 2012 also saw significant additions of new renewable energy capacity, although natural gas plants accounted for the vast majority of new capacity in states that traditionally rely on coal power. The low price of natural gas, bolstered by the U.S. shale gas boom, has driven many power producers to shift from dirtier coal generation to cleaner natural gas-fired power plants. When burned, natural gas emits around half of the CO2 emissions as coal combustion.
But it's not time to sit back on our "we-just-solved-climate-change" laurels just yet. A recent article in Yale Environment 360 cautions strongly against getting caught up in a frenzy of U.S. natural gas development. The authors, researchers at the Colorado-based Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute, argue that throwing all of the nation's weight behind a natural gas-centric power sector could risk price increases for gas, and that banking heavily on high estimates of recoverable gas reserves links U.S. fuel security to very uncertain assumptions.
Idle Power Plant via Shutterstock.
Read more at ENN Affiliate, WorldWatch Institute.