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Leon Kaye headshot

Transportation Sector Now the Largest Contributor to U.S. Emissions

By Leon Kaye

For years, clean energy and power advocates have focused on the nation’s electricity grid as the primary cause of pollution and emissions in the U.S. And of course, they had a good reason: America’s reliance on coal for generating electricity is why the utility sector was long the nation’s largest contributor to CO2 emissions. But as the most recent monthly report from the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) reveals, the transportation sector’s emissions have surpassed those from the power sector during the first two months of this year.

The difference is small — only four-tenths of 1 percent (32.1 versus 31.7 percent). Nonetheless, this trend shows success by both U.S. energy policy and the markets in reducing emissions in one sector, albeit while struggling to contain the amount of emitted CO2 in another. In fact, emissions from transportation in the U.S. keep creeping upward, while those spouted out by power plants are on a rapid decline.

Despite presidential hopeful Donald Trump and U.S. coal companies continuing to skewer the Obama administration over the coal industry’s collapse, the stubborn fact is that natural gas, not renewables, is behind its demise. The combination of cheap natural gas and regulations mandating reduced emissions have contributed to the transition away from coal. Critics point out problems related to natural gas production, such as fracking, but the difference in emissions between the two fuels is as high as 49 percent. While natural gas is an imperfect alternative to coal, it burns cleaner than coal. Think of this energy source as a steppingstone toward the greater deployment of renewables, as wind and solar both become cheaper and more scalable.

The natural gas sector has had its struggles, and in some markets, including California, renewables could overtake natural gas as the largest source of power generation. Nevertheless, many energy analysts suggest the industry’s future in the U.S. is still bright, although Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) forecasts that the global consumption of natural gas will peak by the end of the next decade.

The outlook for the transportation industry’s impact on U.S. emissions, however, is more of a mixed bag.

Indeed, sales of electric vehicles in the U.S. are on an upward trend, and if sales of Telsa’s Model 3 prove as robust as the automaker promises, we could see a transformation of the U.S. auto industry in the next decade. But even though the U.S. automakers say they are committed to the advancement of electric cars, it could be years before other models such as the Chevy Bolt and Ford Fusion Energi take the U.S. market by storm.

So for now, if you view emissions from the transportation sector as a war, think of electric vehicles as wielding a butter knife against an onslaught of machetes. And you can thank the two-year plunge in petroleum prices for this stubborn trend.

While the news wires were laden with reports predicting the U.S. auto industry could hit a steep decline, the fact is that after its near death during the 2008-2009 fiscal crisis and U.S. bailout, 2015 saw a record year in automobile sales. SUVs and sedans largely fed that growth (and of course, robust auto sales have been helped by low interest rates).

And whether you want to blame suburban sprawl or longer road trips, Americans are driving more miles than ever before, happily hitting the road after a decade that revealed year-to-year miles driven were largely stagnant. Furthermore, while the Obama administration has been successful at implementing higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars, the truth is the impact of such mandates could be tepid at best.

Whether one abhors or celebrates them, the truth is that the Obama administration’s policies related to clean energy and power generation is only one of many moving factors behind America’s energy consumption. Watch for the market to largely fuel a transition from hydrocarbons to renewables and other cleaner forms of power and fuel. BNEF, for example, suggests the use of fossil fuels will soon peak if it has not already. And as renewables get cheaper, watch for more corporations to invest in clean power while more citizens seek rooftop solar or investments in community solar projects. Finally, if Tesla and its competitors roll out cars that slay “range anxiety” (and eliminate that quarterly annoyance of getting an oil change), Americans could witness a technological revolution that was unthinkable only a few short years ago.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye