The US Hasn’t Seen Carbon Emissions This Low Since 1991

Thanks to warmer weather and renewable energy, carbon emissions in 2016 were the lowest they’ve been since 1991.
October 18, 2016, 6:50pm
Image: NASA

When it comes to news about climate change, this year has been one hell of an emotional rollercoaster. We've reckoned with blazing heatwaves, natural resource exhaustion, intractable wildfires, and freaky environmental phenomena that made people wonder whether we'd opened up a gateway to the underworld.

But through the seemingly apocalyptic hellfire, some goodness can be found. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), a federal agency tasked with collecting and analyzing energy data, US carbon dioxide emissions during the first six months of 2016 were at their lowest levels since 1991. In numbers, energy-related emissions topped out at 2.53 billion metric tons, and emissions for the entire year are projected to come in at around 5.18 billion metric tons.

At the forefront of this power shift was wind energy, which represented nearly half of that gain.

Warmer weather and a cleaner, less coal-dependent energy mix were probably responsible for the emissions drop, the report said.

During the first half of 2016, the US had the least amount of heating-degree days, or days that bumped up the cost of utility bills, since 1949, which is when the EIA first started measuring heating consumption. Coal power usage fell by 18 percent, while natural gas dropped by 1 percent. Both changes, according to the report, "more than offset a 1 percent increase in total petroleum consumption, which rose during that period as a result of low gasoline prices."


And perhaps most significantly, renewable energy usage saw an increase of 9 percent during the first six months of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015. At the forefront of this power shift was wind energy, which represented nearly half of that gain. Also helpful, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, were improved federal and state standards for energy efficiency that incentivized the production of more sustainable utilities and household products.

The EIA estimates that natural gas will overtake coal for the first time this year, and in 2017 "natural gas and coal are forecast to generate about 34 percent and 31 percent of electricity, respectively, as natural gas prices are forecast to increase." However, under the Clean Power Plan, one of the most important climate change policies to be implemented in the US, domestic coal production is projected to decline by 26 percent between 2015 and 2040.

All of this is mostly good news, since it demonstrates the clear benefits of shifting to a cleaner energy mix. But before we congratulate ourselves for not entirely screwing up this year, a couple of things are definitely worth noting.

For example, we shouldn't dismiss that record-high temperatures in many parts of the country have contributed to unseasonably warm weather this year, resulting in fewer heating-degree days. Climate scientists anticipated that 2016 would be warm, but had little idea we'd see temperature shifts of this magnitude and consistency. NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies found that "each of the first six months of 2016 set a record as the warmest respective month globally in the modern temperature record, which dates to 1880."

Also curious is the prediction that "if natural gas generation used to fuel power plants continues to outpace that of coal," according to the Environmental Leader, "total carbon emissions from that fuel will exceed that of coal-fired generation." When burned, natural gas emits about half as much CO2 as coal, but many environmental groups have opposed the energy source for its other harmful impacts, such as air quality degradation, habitat destruction, and water pollution. Regulations and safety rules around fracking are also in their early days, many of which only took effect on a federal level in 2015.

So should we feel good about this news? Sure, why not. At a time when Americans are facing the leadership of someone who thinks climate change is a "hoax," it's not a bad idea to celebrate the small victories.

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