New numbers from the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA) show that energy-related carbon emissions continue to fall in the country, down nearly four percent last year. “The 2012 downturn means that emissions are at their lowest level since 1994 and over 12 percent below the recent 2007 peak,” the EIA reports.
Those declines have occurred in 5 out of the last 7 years, even last year as the economy began to recover.
So what’s behind the change? The EIA credits several factors: increased energy efficiency (i.e. appliances that use less power), warmer weather (meaning less heating for homes), more efficient vehicles, and more natural gas in the power sector instead of coal. (Renewable energy actually declined last year, due to less hydro power being used.)
While the declines are positive news, they likely aren’t enough to reverse an emissions trend that has lead to climate change across the planet. And what’s happening here in the U.S. isn’t true for growing countries like India and China, where emissions are growing.
In the Washington Post today, Brad Plumer writes that cheap supplies of domestic natural gas — now available due to drilling techniques like hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) and horizontal drilling — have led to a shift away from coal. Natural gas can have about half the carbon emissions of coal.
But a move away from coal to cheaper natural gas may also be a setback for developing more renewable energy. Citing a new report from Stanford’s Energy Modeling Forum, Plumer writes that the recent trend of declining emissions isn’t likely to continue:
“… Cheap natural gas is also likely to displace even cleaner sources of energy like nuclear, wind, and solar. What’s more, low natural-gas prices will discourage efforts to conserve energy and boost efficiency.
As a result, the models, on average, expect U.S. carbon emissions to rise between 2010 and 2035, whether shale-gas production is low or high.”
The bottom line, according to Plumer, is that “fracking won’t solve climate change on its own.”
Update: Building on that point, Climate Central points out that in some drilling states like Texas, methane emissions actually went up last year:
“Texas, home to several major shale oil and gas plays and by far the nation’s biggest industrial air polluter, saw its methane emissions increase from 12.96 million tons to 13.41 million tons between 2011 and 2012.
Every state is responsible for some share of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, but Texas emitted more greenhouse gases overall than the second and third most-polluting states combined last year.
Texas alone was responsible for 393 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from power plants, refineries and the chemical industry — more than three times the carbon footprint of California, which emitted only 114.6 million metric tons.”