According to a Monday report by the Rhodium Group, an independent research company, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions rose to pre-pandemic levels by 2021. This is a turnaround after more than a decade of declining trends.
America’s greenhouse gas emissions grew 6.2 percent last year as the American economy largely recovered from pandemic lockdowns, the Rhodium report estimated. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions decreased by nearly 1 percent per year between 2005 and 2019. The jump of 17 percent in coal-fired energy generation, the first increase in annual coal generation since 2014, and the rapid resurgence on road transport largely accounted for the uptick. Coal’s comeback was driven largely by a hike in natural gas prices, which made coal power more economically attractive.
While last year’s emissions remained 5 percent below 2019 levels, the increase marks a reversal of early pandemic reductions.
These results are in line with U.S. Energy Information Administration end-of year emissions numbers and Carbon Monitor. Carbon Monitor, an academic organization that tracks emissions, found that U.S. emissions rose 7 percent through October. The U.S. Energy Information Administration had predicted a 7-percent increase in energy-related CO2 emission over the past year.
According to the report, the transportation sector saw the greatest decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. However, it saw the largest increase in demand in 2021. This was primarily due to increased demand for freight transport of consumer goods and secondly for passenger travel. Staggered fuel demand was a result of the lack of Covid-19 vaccines. However, new variants were available and breakthrough cases made it possible to do so. The sector’s 10 percent rise from 2020 emissions levels represents a recovery of about two-thirds of its drop from 2019 levels.
The 28 percent electric power sector, which accounts for the majority of U.S. net emissions, saw its emissions rise by 28% in 2020, despite an increase of only 3 percent in electric power demand. The sector’s 6.6 percent emissions hike was driven largely by a surge in natural gas prices, with Henry Hub spot prices averaging $4.93 per million Btu in 2021—more than double their 2020 rate.
Rhodium stated that oil prices and gas prices rose last year as producers reduced their production in response to the Covid oil price collapse, and the lower demand that followed. Gas-fired generation was less economically viable due to higher prices in 2021. This led to a 3 percent drop in gas generation in 2021.
The growth rate of renewable energy generation slowed by half of 2020, but it accounted to 20 percent of U.S. electrical generation for the first-time.
Industry emissions experienced the most modest drop in 2020 at 6.2 percent, but ticked up 3.6 percent in 2021—making up just over half the difference from 2019 levels. The buildings sector saw the smallest increase in greenhouse gas emissions in 2021. It grew only 1.9 percent in 2020, which is less than a quarter of the decrease in emissions from 2020.
The trajectory for emissions this year is uncertain. The Energy Information Administration estimates natural gas prices will plummet, but remain above pre-pandemic levels, causing coal generation to backslide to 22 percent of U.S. power production—1 percent lower than in 2021.
This year’s emissions increase sets the U.S. even further from its Paris Agreement goal of slashing emissions 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The U.S. emitted 17.4 percent more than 2005 levels in 2021, despite being 22.2 percent lower in 2020.
Without the Democrats’ Build Back Better bill, a $2.2 trillion spending and tax package that contains billions of dollars in renewable energy incentives, the U.S. is only on course for emissions reductions of roughly 30 percent by 2030. A Rhodium Group report shows that Congress, the executive and the leading states can work together to reach the 2030 target, but they must act quickly.
There are few options to reduce carbon emissions in the short term. Technological solutions such as carbon capture that reduce emissions by industry—responsible for nearly a quarter of CO2 released—are often expensive or unavailable, Scientific American reported. Renewable energy must compete in markets still dominated primarily by fossil fuels. American consumers usually wait years before replacing high-emitting appliances like water heaters or refrigerators.
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The transportation sector accounts for 31 percent U.S. emissions. Electric vehicle purchases grew from 320,000 in 2020 to 435,000 in 2021. According to an International Energy Agency report, EVs cannot offset rising emissions due to increased travel costs and the sale of non-electric passenger cars. According to the report, the U.S. will buy 8.6 Million new SUVs in 2021.
Cantor predicted that EVs would begin to reduce U.S. transportation emissions in 2025. They are expected to reach cost parity with internal combustion engine cars.
That leaves much of the short-term carbon-cutting to the power sector, which has done the bulk of greening America’s economy in recent decades. Energy Information Administration figures indicate that 12 gigawatts are expected to be retired from coal capacity this year, after the government has retired less than 5 gigawatts worth of coal capacity by 2021.
Ariel Gans is a graduate student at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, specializing in politics, policy and foreign affairs reporting. She earned a B.A. She also holds a B.A. in Political Science and a B.S. in Society & Environment from the University of California, Berkeley. Her work has appeared in USA Today and OpenSecrets as well as Sierra Magazine, UPI, UPI, and the Bay City Beacon.
Source: Inside Climate News