WASHINGTON – America’s greenhouse gas emissions from energy and industry fell more than 10 percent in 2020, reaching their lowest level in at least three decades as the coronavirus pandemic slowed the country’s economy. according to an estimate published on Tuesday from the Rhodium Group.
However, the steep decline was the result of exceptional circumstances, and experts warned the country still faced enormous challenges in dealing with pollution from global warming. In the coming years, emissions in the US are widely expected to rise again once the pandemic subsides and the economy comes back to life – unless policymakers take stronger action to keep the power plants, factories, cars and trucks behind to rehabilitate the country.
“The most significant savings over the last year have been in transportation, which is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels,” said Kate Larsen, director of Rhodium Group, a research and consulting firm. “As vaccines become more prevalent and how quickly people are comfortable to drive and fly again, we expect emissions to rise unless there are significant policy changes.”
Before the pandemic, American emissions had been falling slowly but steadily since 2005, in large part due to electricity producers have moved away from coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, in favor of cheaper and cleaner natural gas, wind and solar power. In the past decade, despite President Trump’s efforts to revitalize the industry, utilities have shut down hundreds of coal-fired power plants.
Then the coronavirus arrived. When the governors put their states under lock and key last spring and the Americans sought protection, Emissions began to decline in parts of the economy that have rarely seen sustained declines before.
Transportation, the country’s largest source of greenhouse gases, saw emissions drop 14.7 percent in 2020 as millions of people stopped driving and airlines canceled flights. While travel expenses rose again in the second half of the year as states eased their lockdowns, Americans drove 15 percent fewer miles for all of last year than in 2019, and demand for jet fuel fell by more than a third.
Emissions from heavy industries such as steel and cement fell 7 percent in 2020 as automakers and other manufacturers produced fewer goods during times of economic downturn. America’s buildings that produce carbon dioxide when they burn oil or natural gas for heat saw emissions drop 6.2 percent, due to both closings and above-average warm weather.
In the electricity sector, emissions fell 10.3 percent in 2020, due to a sharp drop in coal burning. When electricity demand declined across the country, utilities supplied their coal-fired power plants ran much less often because coal has become the most expensive fuel in many parts of the country. Instead, they used more natural gas – which produces less carbon dioxide than coal, but still produces significant heat-storing methane – and relied more on emission-free wind and solar energy.
Renewable energies grew in 2020 as energy companies overcame disruptions from the pandemic to build a record number of new wind turbines and solar panels before the expiry of an important deadline for applying for a federal tax credit. The US produced roughly as much electricity from renewable sources as it did from coal last year, a milestone never before reached.
Overall, the nationwide drop in emissions was the biggest one-year drop since at least World War II, the Rhodium Group said, putting the United States within striking distance of one of its key climate goals under the Paris Agreement, a global pact brought by nearly 200 governments Combating climate change.
As part of this agreement, former President Barack Obama promised that US emissions would drop 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. President Trump opposed the Paris Pact, and before last year it looked like the US would miss that target. After the pandemic, America’s industrial emissions are now around 21.5 percent below 2005 levels.
However, this milestone comes with several caveats. First, these numbers do not explain any increase in the resulting emissions of last year’s record-breaking forest fires in the west, which burned millions of acres of forest and grassland and released the carbon dioxide trapped in all those trees into the atmosphere.
A preliminary estimate in November from BloombergNEF suggested forest fires could offset about 3 percent of the decrease in American emissions from energy and industry last year. While many trees that went up in flames will eventually grow back and absorb carbon dioxide in the process, the process will take years. And scientists have warned that forest fires will get bigger and more frequent as the planet warms up.
The other caveat is that once the vaccines are widespread and the economy recovers, American emissions could rise again. The Rhodium Group’s report found that a similar rebound occurred after the 2008-09 financial crisis resulted in a sharp drop in emissions. And it has been found that many sectors such as air travel and steelmaking have already recovered in recent months.
“Unfortunately, 2020 tells us little about what to expect in 2021 and beyond,” the report concluded. “The vast majority of emissions reductions in 2020 were due to reduced economic activity, not structural changes that would permanently reduce the carbon intensity of our economy.”
Scientists warn that even a sharp drop in emissions by a year will not be enough to stop global warming. Until mankind’s emissions are essentially zeroed and nations stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the planet will continue to warm. How to underline this warning, European researchers announced last week that 2020 was most likely linked to 2016 as the hottest year in history.
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has made global warming a top priority and set a goal of reducing American emissions to zero by 2050. Experts said: would require important new steps To accelerate the use of renewable energies, Americans are moving from gasoline-powered cars to cleaner electric models and rethinking methods of processes like heating the home or making steel and cement.
And these efforts would have to be repeated worldwide. On Monday the International Energy Agency said it would publish a detailed blueprint in May of how the global economy could achieve net zero emissions by 2050, noting that the global decrease in greenhouse gas emissions last year would likely prove temporary if nations did not take the opportunity to address their Rethink dependence on fossil fuels.
“Nothing less than a complete overhaul of our energy infrastructure will be required,” said Fatih Birol, managing director of the agency. “That takes decisive action this year, next year, and indeed every year through 2050.”