Economic expansion increases carbon emissions, despite advances in green technologies

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It doesn’t matter that coal-fired power plants have gone out of business in record numbers or that Americans have nearly doubled their purchases of electric cars. The United States increased its carbon dioxide emissions in 2018, and much of the reason was normally cited as a bonus: substantial economic growth.

A booming U.S. economy meant increased industrial production, more truck and plane travel, and more offices and other workplaces to heat up – all combined, along with other factors, to create the second-largest increase annual number of major greenhouse gas emissions in more than two decades, according to new estimates from the Rhodium Group.

The upshot is that – despite the expansion of solar and wind power and some movement toward alternative fuel vehicles – the United States will need to do even more in the coming years to come close to past international commitments to reduction of greenhouse gases.

“We know that CO2 comes from things like burning fuel for manufacturing and burning coal to produce steel and burning gas to move cars and trucks,” said José Tapia Granados, an economist at Drexel University in Philadelphia, which has researched the impact of economic growth on global warming. “All of this economic activity produces carbon dioxide and money for someone. Emissions therefore tend to be higher during periods of greatest economic activity.

Carbon dioxide is the most common greenhouse gas, and excess emissions worry scientists because they trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, driving up temperatures and triggering a cascading series of problems – droughts and mega-storms to more intense wildfires, such as those that charred large areas. of California in 2018.

America’s greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 2007, just before the economic collapse, with all sectors combining to release 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. Emissions continued on a generally downward trend until 2017, when they fell to 5.14 billion tonnes. But the rate of decline has slowed considerably in recent years as the economy has rebounded.

And the new report predicts an increase to 5.32 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2018. That’s 3.4% more than in 2017, the second biggest increase in more than two decades and the biggest jump since. 2010, when the US economy started to rebound. of the Great Recession.

The report stresses that the numbers are preliminary estimates, with the Environmental Protection Agency expected to release actual numbers in 2020.

Early estimates reinforce the feeling that the United States faces a daunting challenge trying to rein in greenhouse gas emissions second only to China.

Efforts to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere were challenging across all economic sectors, including:

• Electric power, where shutdowns of coal-fired power plants have helped to mitigate increases in emissions, but not as much as scientists had hoped. Indeed, the good health of the economy and an intense cold snap in the northeast have increased the demand for heating and cooking fuel. And much of that electricity came from natural gas-fired power plants. Although gas-fired plants emit less CO2 than coal-fired plants, they are not as clean as zero-emission solar and wind farms. As a result, emissions from the electricity sector increased by 1.9%.

• Transport, where a boom in electric car sales – from just under 200,000 in 2017 to over 361,000 in 2018 – has helped to reduce gas consumption slightly. But that decline was more than reversed – and emissions were driven up – by the jump in fuel consumption for trucks and planes, both of which increased by around 3%.

“This highlights the challenges of decarbonizing the transportation sector beyond light vehicles,” the Rhodium report says.

• Buildings, whose emissions have increased by 10%, to the highest level since 2004. This CO2 comes from the combustion of oil, diesel and natural gas for heating and cooking. Part of the jump was due to an unusually cold winter in 2018, but the report’s authors said more work needed to be done to improve fuel efficiency. He called buildings one of the sectors “most often overlooked in the development of clean energy and climate policy”.

• The industry produced the largest gain of any sector ― more than 55 million additional metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, compared to the previous year. Much of the jump was due to a booming economy, the report said, as evidenced by a 7.3% increase in all manner of manufacturing shipments in the first nine months of the year.

“Absent a significant policy change or major technological breakthrough, we expect the industrial sector to account for an increasingly larger share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years. , including gases other than CO2,” the Rhodium report says. “We expect it to overtake electricity as the second largest source of emissions in California by 2020 and become the largest source of emissions in Texas by 2022.”

Drexel’s Tapia Granados co-authored a study in 2012 that found that, from 1958 to 2010, CO2 emissions were closely linked to increased economic activity.

“It’s a message no one wants to hear: to slow global warming, we’ll either have to curb economic growth or transform the way global economies work,” reads a summary of the study.

“If ‘business as usual’ conditions continue, economic contractions of the magnitude of the Great Recession or even more will be required to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels,” Tapia Granados said at the time of publication.

The failure of the United States and other nations to make more progress is particularly striking, given that the UN officially recognized the challenge of excess carbon dioxide at least as early as a 1992 climate convention. , said Mathis Wackernagel, president of the Global Climate Think Tank Footprint Network.

“Today, even the percentage of energy from fossil fuels is higher than it was then,” Wackernagel said. “It is despite everything [technological] advances in photovoltaic and other cells. And the intention to do more.”

Indeed, the Rhodium report suggests that greenhouse gas emissions have fallen with the recession and will now continue to rise, without serious changes in policy and behavior.

The new study “highlights the limited progress made in developing decarbonization strategies for these sectors.” The news comes as the United States is already struggling to meet its commitments under the 2015 Paris climate accord. The report concludes: “The gap is even wider in 2019.”

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