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U.S. Has Lowest Greenhouse Gas Levels Since 1994 — But That Doesn't Mean Much For Global Warming

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Surprise! The United States is actually doing far better in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions than you may have realized. 

That is the takeaway from a report issued to little fanfare late last week. The Sustainable Energy Factbook report compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) for the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE) concluded that U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide had fallen 13% during the past five years and that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHG emissions) had declined by 10.7% from the baseline year of 2005. The Obama administration has committed to reducing America's GHG emissions by 17% from their 2005 levels by 2020. The emission levels in 2012 were the lowest they have been in the United States since 1994.

More importantly, the report refuted a major contention by anti-reduction proponents, particularly Republican congresspeople: that efforts to reduce GHG emissions would have a negative effect on the economy. The report showed that during the study period, while emissions were reduced, the gross domestic product actually grew by 3%.

So what's responsible for the reduction in emissions? A major factor is a change in the pattern of energy consumption in the United States; the nation has become more energy efficient, with total energy use declining by 6.4% since 2007, in large part due to the adoption of energy-saving technologies like more efficient home heating systems. The U.S. has also seen marked declines in the consumption of petroleum products (gasoline/diesel/etc.) and coal, with the use of the latter declining by 4.4% during the survey period. Coal now fuels less than one-fifth of America's electric generation plants, while the amount of electricity derived from wind and solar sources has steadily increased.

Though the report would seem like a big win for America's environmentalists and those who want to see greenhouse gas emissions reduced as part of a comprehensive plan to fight the effects of global warming, there are a few factors that will likely temper their enthusiasm.

The first is the nature of the goal that the U.S. is halfway towards meeting. Ahead of the Copenhagen climate talks in 2011, the U.S. committed to reducing GHG emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 – the goal we are now halfway towards meeting. Sounds good, right? The problem is that most other developed nations use 1990 as the benchmark year for their emissions reductions, a lower level of emissions than those found in 2005.

Second, the reason for the large reduction in coal and for part of the reduction in petroleum is that many consumers were able to switch to a cheaper, cleaner burning fuel: natural gas. Ample supplies of natural gas have driven wholesale prices down and have caused many electric generators to switch, if possible, from burning coal to burning natural gas. For the environmentalists, this is a good thing, since they have lobbied against the burning of dirty coal for ages. But this abundant natural gas supply is thanks to hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. “fracking”), a technique that is the new bane of the environmental movement; green groups are actively lobbying against fracking across the country, with New York state being the current battleground. Take fracking out of the mix though and the natural gas supply will contract, prices will go up and it will make less economic sense to burn gas instead of coal.

And finally, while less coal is being burned in the U.S., that doesn't mean that it might not just be burned somewhere else. The U.S. coal industry, seeing that it is at a competitive disadvantage to natural gas on the domestic front, is starting to aggressively look for markets abroad. Mining companies in the Mountain West region of the country are pursuing the idea of shipping their coal to ports along the Pacific Coast and then on to perpetually energy-hungry China. Even though China is currently suffering from epic levels of air pollution, their domestic policy is built upon maintaining high levels of growth, which means getting energy in any form they can. But GHS are a global phenomenon – if the goal is keeping emissions levels down, it really doesn't matter if coal is burned in China or Kentucky: the emissions released by its burning will go up into the same global atmosphere.

The U.S. has hit an important milestone in the reduction of our GHG emissions. But reaching that milestone is the result, in part, of another process that is also potentially damaging to the environment; and just because GHG emissions are lower in our country, that doesn't necessarily mean that global GHG levels will decline as well.   

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