Energy & Climate Staff, 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.