Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. is making progress on climate change.
We have cut our carbon emissions more than any other country in the world in recent years — 7.7 percent since 2006. U.S. emissions fell 1.9 percent last year and are projected to fall 1.9 percent again this year, which will put us back at 1996 levels. It will not be easy to achieve the reductions Obama promised in Copenhagen — 17 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2020 — but that goal no longer looks out of reach, even in the absence of comprehensive legislation.
Why isn’t this extraordinary story a bigger deal in U.S. politics? You’d think Obama would be boasting about it! Turns out, though, it’s a little awkward for him, since several of the drivers responsible are things for which he can’t (or might not want to) take credit.
Awkward: that whole recession thing
For obvious reasons, boasting about the environmental benefits of the recession is not something Obama’s eager to do.
The second big driver is the glut of cheap natural gas, which is currently trading at the 10-year low of about $3 per million British thermal units. This is absolutely crushing coal, the biggest source of CO2 in the electric sector:
The share of U.S. electricity that comes from coal is forecast to fall below 40% for the year, its lowest level since World War II. Four years ago, it was 50%. By the end of this decade, it is likely to be near 30%.
Here’s U.S. electricity generation from 2000-2012. Look how dramatic coal’s recent plunge is:
In April, coal and natural gas both contributed 32 percent to the U.S. electricity mix — equal for the first time since EIA started collecting data in the ’70s. This is, as Alexis Madrigal emphasizes, an extraordinary shift, unprecedented in the history of the U.S. electrical system.
It’s helpful to Obama to be able to point to cheap natural gas when people accuse his EPA of killing coal. And it’s helpful in his effort to claim “all of the above.” But fracking’s potential environmental and health impacts has quickly made it a flash point with his environmental base (and his Hollywood base), so it’s at the very least a fraught subject.
Happy: Coal’s getting its ass kicked by activists
First, it isn’t just natural gas and EPA taking coal out — it’s the kick-ass anti-coal movement! Fighting tooth-and-nail, plant-by-plant, it has blocked new construction and shut down over 100 existing plants.
The campaign has been so disciplined and successful that it’s drawn the support of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who does not typically invest his own money in feel-good symbolism. He expects accountability and he’s getting it. Like the man said, “Ending coal power production is the right thing to do.”
Happy: Clean energy is happening
Renewable energy still represents a small portion of U.S. electricity generation, but that fact obscures its outsized impact. The U.S. doesn’t need to add a ton of renewables for things to start shaking loose.
Here’s growth over the last decade:
One thing that jumps out is that renewables are growing much faster in some places than others. South Dakota now gets 22 percent of its electricity from wind, Iowa 19 percent. The top two states in total installed wind are Kansas and Texas. The top two for wind jobs are Iowa and Texas. That’s three red states and a deeply purple one — a wedge separating clean energy from the climate culture wars. That portends accelerating changes in the political economy.
Also driving changes in political economy: 29 states and D.C. now have mandatory renewable energy standards.
Worry, but be happy
To sum up: yes, the explosive growth of natural gas and the Great Recession played a big part in U.S. climate emissions declining in recent years. And either of them could reverse in years to come. But they are not the whole story. There are real transitions underway — seedlings that can be watered and fertilized.
As Brad Plumer notes, America’s modest progress to date still leaves the world on a pathway to climate catastrophe. But it also shows that projections are not destiny. Things can change, and quickly.
Full Story: US leads the world in cutting CO2 emissions — so why aren’t we talking about it?
Source: Grist, July 17, 2012