WASHINGTON — America’s greenhouse gas emissions from energy and industry rose 6.2 percent in 2021 as the economy began recovering from pandemic lows and the nation’s coal plants roared back to life, according to a preliminary estimate published Monday by the Rhodium Group.
The rebound was not a total surprise: The nation’s emissions had plummeted more than 10 percent in 2020, the largest one-year drop on record, after the initial coronavirus outbreak triggered widespread lockdowns and energy use plunged to its lowest level in decades. Emissions were expected back to normalize as restrictions eased and economic activity increased.
“If anything, last year’s rebound in emissions was lower than it could have been because the pandemic is still causing disruptions and the economy isn’t back to normal,” said Kate Larsen, a partner at the Rhodium Group, a research and consulting firm. “Emissions are still well below 2019 levels.”
The increase in emissions highlighted the challenges President Biden faces in trying to shift the nation from oil, coal, and gas and help prevent a sharp rise in global temperatures.
Mr. Biden has set a goal of slashing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, which is roughly the pace that scientists say the whole world must follow to keep the Earth from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels and minimize the risk of catastrophic effects. Already, the planet has warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius in the past century.
But after last year’s rebound, U.S. emissions are now just 17.4 percent below 2005 levels, the Rhodium Group estimated. Several recent studies have found that the United States is likely to fall far short of achieving Mr. Biden’s climate goals without major new policies to speed up the transition to wind, solar and other clean energy.
Whether Mr. Biden can enact these policies is a major question: His Build Back Better Act — which contains $555 billion in spending and tax incentives for renewable power, electric cars and other climate programs — remains in limbo on Capitol Hill. Senator Joe Manchin III, West Virginia’s crucial Democratic swing vote has so far refused to support the legislation. However, Democrats are expected try again this year. The bill has been opposed by all Republicans.
Princeton University researchers have found that the bill, in its current form, could get the United States the most towards its climate goal. It would triple or quadruple the pace of solar and wind power installations, accelerate electric car sales, and encourage utilities and other entities to retire more coal plants over ten years.
However, the United States is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels for its power.
Transportation, the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gases, saw a 10 percent increase in emissions in 2021 after a 15 percent decline in 2020, the Rhodium Group estimated. The Rhodium Group estimated that a large part of this rebound was due to an increase in diesel-powered trucks transporting goods to consumers. Last year, freight traffic climbed above pre-pandemic levels.
As uncertainty surrounding new variants of the engine caused travel plans to be disrupted and many people stayed at home, passenger travel in airplanes and cars has taken longer to recover. While gasoline consumption has not returned to 2019 levels since October, demand for jet fuel is still well below pre-pandemic levels.
There are some signs that vehicles on the roads are starting to shift: Sales of electric cars, a key technology for cutting emissions, increased to record highs in 2021, accounting for 5 percent of all new car sales in the third quarter, according to Atlas Public Policy, a research firm. However, electric cars are still not widespread enough to make a significant impact on emissions. Very few trucks have been electrified.
Last year saw a huge comeback in coal, which is the most polluting fossil fuel. Emissions from coal-fired power stations increased 17 percent in 2021, after falling 19 percent in 2020. Even though America still uses far less coal today than it did a decade ago.
In the years before the pandemic hit, America’s electric utilities had been retiring hundreds of coal plants, replacing them with cheaper and cleaner natural gas, wind and solar power. In 2020, electricity usage plummeted across the country. Many utilities also ran their remaining coal plants less often as it was the most expensive fuel.
This changed last year. Natural gas prices nearly doubled in 2021. This was due in part to a cold winter and rising imports. Many utilities switched back into running their coal plants less often. While coal burning for electricity produces more carbon dioxide than natural gas, it also creates a lot methane which is a potent greenhouse gas.
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Global temperatures 2021 was Earth’s fifth hottest year on record, European scientists announced. This finding is consistent with a clear warming trend: The past seven years have been the hottest.
“It really illustrates how much we’ve depended on cheap natural gas prices to keep coal in decline,” Ms. Larsen said. “Overall, we still expect coal to decline further in the years ahead, but unless there are new policies put in place to clean up the power sector, the coal industry could see a bit of a lifeline if there are big swings in the gas market.”
A U.S. Energy Information Administration report recently predicted that coal emissions would drop again next year, if natural gas prices stabilize. According to the agency, electric utilities have already announced plans for removing at least 28 percent from their remaining coal plants by 2035. Over the past two year, power companies installed record-breaking numbers of solar panels and wind turbines.
Still, meeting Mr. Biden’s climate goals will be daunting: To do so, the Rhodium Group has estimated that the United States would need to cut emissions roughly 5 percent each year between now and 2030, which is a much faster pace than the country was achieving before the pandemic. The solar industry warned last month that new installations could slow down in 2022 due to supply-chain constraints, rising material costs, and other factors.
The Rhodium Group also observed that the United States has not made significant progress in reducing emissions from two other major sectors, industry and buildings.
After a decline of 6.2 percent in 2020, emissions from heavy industries like steel and cement rose by 3.6 percent in 2021. Such factories, which account for roughly one-fifth of the nation’s emissions, could prove difficult to clean up without new technologies, and industrial emissions have stayed largely flat since 2005.
Emissions from homes and buildings can also be directly caused by fossil fuels like natural gases in furnaces, hot-water heaters stoves ovens stoves and clothes dryers. After a decline of 7.6 percent in 2020, building emissions increased by 1.9 percent in 2021.
The Rhodium group report only examined emissions from industrial and energy sources. It did not include agricultural sectors. It also did not account for any uptick in emissions resulting from last year’s wildfires in California, Colorado and the Pacific Northwest, which burned millions of acres of forests and grasslands, sending the carbon dioxide that had been locked away in all those trees into the atmosphere.
Using satellite data, the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service estimated in December that last year’s North American wildfires emitted 83 million tons of carbon dioxide. Although the forests that were set ablaze may eventually recover and absorb carbon dioxide, this process could take many years. Scientists warn that wildfires will increase in frequency and size as the planet warms.
The United States was not alone to see a large rebound in fossil fuel usage last year. Global Carbon Project researchers in November estimated that global carbon-dioxide emission from energy and industry increased 4.9 percent by 2021, compared to a 5.4 per cent decline in 2020. The pandemic caused a temporary climate change, with major increases in China, India, and the European Union.
Source: NY Times