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With Coal Power Down to 1975 Levels, Reducing Carbon Emissions Gets Trickier

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Energy & Environment
Carbon Emissions

Electricity generation in the U.S. has shifted dramatically over the years, as coal power continues its rapid decline. That shift supports the view that a combination of public policy and bottom-line benefits can have a significant, lasting impact on carbon emissions without impinging on economic growth. Unfortunately, coal power represents the low hanging fruit of carbon management. Businesses seeking to lead on climate action would do well to focus attention on transportation and other sectors where carbon emissions remain stubbornly high.

All the good news about carbon emissions in the U.S.

A new carbon emissions report by the independent research firm Rhodium Group illustrates how public policy and private sector motivation have combined to drive coal out of the power generation sector.

The new report is a preliminary analysis of carbon emissions in the U.S. for 2019. For all sectors combined, Rhodium anticipates a 2.1 percent year-over-year drop in emissions compared to 2018.

That’s the good news. However, if all sectors of the economy performed as well as the power sector, the drop would be more on the order of 10 percent.

Rhodium reports that the carbon emissions from power sector decreased by 10 percent in 2019, primarily due to the collapse of coal.

Although carbon emissions from natural gas power plants rose, coal-fired power generation sank 18 percent compared to 2018.  That brought coal power down to a level not seen since 1975, and it was more than enough to offset the increase in natural gas emissions.

Last year’s steep falloff in power sector emissions was also impressive over the short term. Rhodium reports that the drop of nearly 10 percent in 2019 was the “the biggest year-on-year drop in decades,” and it was well below the previous year-over-year drop of only 1.2 percent in 2018.

All the bad news about carbon emissions

So much for the good news. According to Rhodium, the bad news is that overall carbon emissions in the U.S. were slightly higher across — yes, higher — than they were in 2016. There was a sharp uptick from 2017 to 2018, and the drop of 2.1 percent in 2019 was not quite enough to offset that upward movement.

Rhodium explains:

“Emissions from buildings, industry and other parts of the economy rose, though less than in 2018. All told, net U.S. GHG emissions ended 2019 slightly higher than at the end of 2016.”

If that sounds ominous, it is. According to Rhodium, at this rate the U.S. is far from meeting the weak climate action goals of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, let alone the more ambitious goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

So, where is the culprit?

In 2019, transportation and industrial emissions edged up slightly, while buildings increased significantly, by 2.2 percent.

It appears that the biggest damage was done within the remaining sectors, including oil and gas operations as well as agriculture and land use. Emissions in those sectors rose by 4.4 percent.

Businesses can still lead on climate action

The Rhodium report may sound discouraging, but in effect it is a call to action.

Climate policy has stalled out in the White House, but given the advent of low cost energy storage and the burst of new activity in the nation’s vast offshore wind sector, businesses seeking renewable energy will not have to look far in the years to come.

Businesses looking to lead on climate action can also adopt new alternatives in other sectors as new technology comes into the market.

In transportation, auto makers are gearing up to push millions of electric cars onto the roads. Renewable hydrogen is also providing new opportunities to electrify vans, trucks and other heavy duty vehicles. A similar trend is taking place in maritime shipping, and alternative fuels for aircraft are also emerging.

In buildings, a handful of local jurisdictions have already banned new natural gas hookups. Business can get a jump on the building electrification trend by retrofitting their existing property, too. As more buildings eliminate natural gas in favor of electric appliances, economies of scale will help improve bottom line incentives for making the switch.

Carbon emissions from industry still present a challenge, but manufacturers seeking to clean up their supply chains can look forward to more options for “green” steel and low-carbon aluminum, among other raw materials. The advent of green chemistry also promises to reduce the carbon footprint of manufactured products.

The common denominator in all of these actions is a shift away from natural gas, petroleum fuels, and petrochemicals, and that will help turn carbon emissions around in other sectors. When businesses sort their supply chains with an eye on carbon emissions, they will have a direct impact on emissions related to oil and gas at the source.

The alternatives are at hand, and businesses can do more to push the carbon emissions envelope regardless of White House policy.

Image credit: Pixabay

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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