US Emissions at Their Lowest Since 1994


The U.S. has long relied on coal plants for energy. But times are changing, a new report says. Photo by United Nations Photo / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


The 1990s are back. We’re not talking about the striking fashions or the Backstreet Boys (though both are reemerging). Turns out that after being on the rise for more than a decade, carbon dioxide emissions in the United States have fallen to mid-1990s levels, a new report says.

The drop is the result of prioritizing natural gas, coaxing in renewable energies, and propagating energy saving technologies. By the end of 2012, the country saw a 10.7% decline on 2005 emissions the Guardian UK reports—setting the United States well on its way to meet President Obama’s pledge, which he made in early 2010, to slash 2005 carbon dioxide emissions by 17% by 2020.

The findings aren’t entirely surprising. As the Guardian UK reports, in recent months analysts were predicting that 2012 would signal a major shift away from the emissions output of recent years. Some sources suggest that the U.S. is relatively well on track to deliver these proposed cuts, while the recent report optimistically suggests that the energy shift signals a lasting trend.

The report, which was put together by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), details a move away from coal as a source of electricity, to natural gas instead. In fact, for the first time in U.S. history in April 2012, natural gas use for electricity became equivalent to coal-derived electricity.

From the report:


“Traditional sources [of energy] are in decline, while natural gas, renewables and energy efficiency are on the rise. These changes, which show no sign of abating, have far-reaching implications for US economic and national security interests. They are increasing the diversity of the country's energy mix, improving our energy security, and rapidly shrinking our “carbon footprint” – a major positive development for addressing climate change.”


Amid this move away from coal and oil and toward diversified energy sources—which include solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal—the American public has also slowly started shifting towards hybrid and plug-in vehicles, the Guardian UK reports. This has reduced vehicle emissions, while the advancement of energy-saving technologies, like more efficient heating and cooling systems in commercial buildings, have cut energy usage, too.

Coal now is used to meet 18.1% of the U.S.’s total energy demand  (it generated 42% of electricity in 2011, down from 49% in 2007), and a simultaneous drop in oil use has made way for natural gas provided by fracking, which is widely considered a controversial practice.

Even though domestic use of coal is dropping and the future of the three dozen or so proposed new coal-fired plants in the United States is up in the air due to in part to new regulations, the development of five new large American ports for exporting coal to other countries is now on the cards, Scientific American reports.

These proposed ports will facilitate the great shift of America’s coal to other places, predominantly Asia, where hunger for energy is high. Audubon Magazine’s Ted Williams wrote an extensive article on America’s efforts to ‘kick the coal habit’, which unfortunately involves ‘unloading’ the product on Asia, he writes, so feeding the cycle of pollution anyway.

Figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that in 2011, America was already exporting 10% of its coal. Often, this cargo goes to places that continue the spread of coal plants, most markedly in India and China, where about three-quarters of upcoming coal plants will be installed, the Guardian UK reported last year. They were writing about findings issued by the World Research Institute, which showed that 1,199 new coal-fired plants were approved for installment around the globe – with 363 in China, and 455 in India. In his article, Ted Williams surmises that “Providing China with the world’s cheapest coal will merely ensure a long-term commitment to it while removing incentives to improve plant efficiency and seek alternate fuels, all of which are cleaner.”

“If you're just shipping that coal to China, have you really made any gains?” said Brett Vanden Heuvel—the executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, a group that is part of a coalition opposing the development of America’s new coal ports—to Scientific American.

A report released last year by Climate Central also picked up on the trend of emissions reductions, but saw it primarily as a symptom of America’s recession. Once the economy is at its peak, coupled with a larger population, the author suggested, the habit of intensified energy-use will resume. 

While these more skeptical reports do question last year’s emissions success, there is some consensus that politically, the report’s findings mean good things, says the Guardian UK. At the very least, the drop in emissions will place a gloss over the government’s reputation, a body long accused of shirking its environmental responsibilities, especially where combating climate change is concerned.


Related stories:

Kicking the Coal Habit: In America’s efforts to stifle its attraction to coal, the product gets shipped elsewhere, with the same environmental consequences.

EPA Releases New Rules Limiting Power Plant Emissions: In a bold move, the body’s rule promised to revive the way that the government sees coal.

Exclusive Interview: Obama Defeats Romney, Says We Must Tackle Climate Change: The President answers questions that clarify his position on environmental issues.

What Four More Years of the Obama Administration Means for Environmental Policy: Once in office, Obama starts talking about climate again, and ideas circulate about what this signals for the path ahead.

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