U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, 1990-2018. Graphic: The New York Times / Rhodium U.S. Climate Service

By Brad Plumer
8 January 2019

WASHINGTON (The New York Times) – America’s carbon dioxide emissions rose by 3.4 percent in 2018, the biggest increase in eight years, according to a preliminary estimate published Tuesday.

Strikingly, the sharp uptick in emissions occurred even as a near-record number of coal plants around the United States retired last year, illustrating how difficult it could be for the country to make further progress on climate change in the years to come, particularly as the Trump administration pushes to roll back federal regulations that limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The estimate, by the research firm Rhodium Group, pointed to a stark reversal. Fossil fuel emissions in the United States have fallen significantly since 2005 and declined each of the previous three years, in part because of a boom in cheap natural gas and renewable energy, which have been rapidly displacing dirtier coal-fired power.

Yet even a steep drop in coal use last year wasn’t enough to offset rising emissions in other parts of the economy. Some of that increase was weather-related: A relatively cold winter led to a spike in the use of oil and gas for heating in areas like New England.

But, just as important, as the United States economy grew at a strong pace last year, emissions from factories, planes and trucks soared. And there are few policies in place to clean those sectors up.

“The big takeaway for me is that we haven’t yet successfully decoupled U.S. emissions growth from economic growth,” said Trevor Houser, a climate and energy analyst at the Rhodium Group.

As United States manufacturing boomed, for instance, emissions from the nation’s industrial sectors — including steel, cement, chemicals and refineries — increased by 5.7 percent. [more]

U.S. Carbon Emissions Surged in 2018 Even as Coal Plants Closed


8 January 2019 (Rhodium Group) – After three years of decline, US carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions rose sharply last year. Based on preliminary power generation, natural gas, and oil consumption data, we estimate emissions increased by 3.4% in 2018. This marks the second largest annual gain in more than two decades — surpassed only by 2010 when the economy bounced back from the Great Recession. While a record number of coal-fired power plants were retired last year, natural gas not only beat out renewables to replace most of this lost generation but also fed most of the growth in electricity demand. As a result, power sector emissions overall rose by 1.9%. The transportation sector held its title as the largest source of US emissions for the third year running, as robust growth in demand for diesel and jet fuel offset a modest decline in gasoline consumption. The buildings and industrial sectors also both posted big year-on-year emissions gains. Some of this was due to unusually cold weather at the start of the year. But it also highlights the limited progress made in developing decarbonization strategies for these sectors. The US was already off track in meeting its Paris Agreement targets. The gap is even wider headed into 2019.

A Sign Change in US Emissions Trends

CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in the US peaked in 2007 at just over 6 billion tons. Between then and the end of 2015, emissions fell by 12.1% an average rate of 1.6% per year. The Great Recession played a significant role in that decline, but the carbon intensity of US energy supply also dropped dramatically, primarily due to a switch in power generation from coal to natural gas, wind, and solar. Since 2016, the pace of US emissions decline has slowed, from 2.7% in 2015 to 1.7% in 2016 to 0.8% in 2017 (Figure 1).  As we noted this time last year and in our annual Taking Stock report, that slowdown in progress, combined with a lack of new climate policy action at the federal level, risked putting the US emissions reduction goal under the Paris Agreement a 26-28% cut below 2005 levels by 2025 – out of reach.

Preliminary data from last year suggests that the gap the US needs to close to meet that target got bigger, not smaller. Based on emissions data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) for the first three quarters of the year, weekly EIA petroleum supply data, plus daily power generation and natural gas data from Genscape and Bloomberg, respectively, we estimate that energy-related CO2 emissions increased by 3.4% in 2018. That’s the second largest annual gain since 1996 surpassed only by the 3.6% increase that occurred in 2010, when emissions rebounded from a recession-driven 7.2% decline the year before.

While we don’t expect a repeat of 2018 this coming year, the data provides some important insights into the emission reduction challenges facing the US. […]

Annual change in U.S. CO2 emissions, 2015-2018. Graphic: Rhodium Group

The More Stubborn Parts of Transportation

The transportation sector retained its title as the largest source of CO2 emissions in the US for the third year running (Figure 4). During the first nine months of the year, gasoline demand declined by 0.1% as modest efficiency gains offset a minor increase in vehicle miles traveled (Figure 5). But robust growth in demand for both trucking and air travel increased demand for diesel and jet fuel by 3.1% and 3.0%, respectively. This highlights the challenges in decarbonizing the transportation sector beyond light-duty vehicles. Here we see efficiency improvements and electrification beginning to make a dent, albeit not nearly a big enough one to meet medium- and long-term US emissions targets.

Preliminary fourth quarter data suggests an accelerated decline in gasoline demand, an uptick in diesel demand and moderation in jet fuel demand relative to the first three quarters of the year. All told, we estimate that transportation emissions grew by 1% in 2018, roughly the same as the 2017 growth rate. […]

U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions by sector, 1990-2018. Graphic: Rhodium Group

Going into 2019, the Emissions Gap Is Wider

The estimates provided in this note are for energy-related CO2 emissions only, which account for roughly three-quarters of total GHG emissions in the US. Official EPA 2018 inventory numbers for all GHGs will not be available until 2020. But this spring we will release our annual public forecast of US GHG emissions under current federal and state policy that will incorporate these recent energy-related CO2 trends. Other factors will impact that outlook, including policy, market, economic and technology developments since our last public report.  That said, the growth in energy-related CO2 emissions that occurred last year stretches the gap the US has to close to meet its Paris Agreement target even wider.

Energy-related CO2 emissions ended the year 11.2% below 2005 levels. That’s an uptick compared to 14% below 2005 at the end of 2017 (Figure 6). The US target under the Copenhagen Accord is a 17% reduction in all GHG emissions by the end of 2020. Assuming proportional reductions in other gasses, the US will need to reduce energy-related CO2 emissions by 3.3% per year, on average, in 2019 and 2020 to meet the Copenhagen target. That is significantly faster than the 1.2% average annual reduction between 2005 and 2017. In reality, the pace of energy CO2 emission reductions will likely need to be even faster as the decline in non-CO2 gasses has underperformed that of energy-related CO2 in recent years.

U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions, 1990-2018, compared with Copenhagen Accord and Paris Agreement Targets. Graphic: Rhodium Group

To meet the Paris Agreement target of a 26-28% reduction from 2005 levels by 2025, the US will need to reduce energy-related CO2 emissions by 2.6% on average over the next seven years and faster if declines in other gasses do not keep pace. That’s more than twice the pace the US achieved between 2005 and 2017 and significantly faster than any seven-year average in US history. It is certainly feasible, but will likely require a fairly significant change in policy in the very near future and/or extremely favorable market and technological conditions. We will explore both in our updated US emissions forecasts in late spring/early summer. [more]

Preliminary US Emissions Estimates for 2018

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