Visions  
comments_image Comments

America Leads the World in Cutting CO2 Emissions. So Why Aren't We Talking About It?

We're actually making strong progress toward our carbon-reduction goals. But some of the reasons for our success are too awkward for our politicians to mention out loud.
 
 
Share

Photo Credit: 350.org

 

Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. is making progress on climate change.

We have cut our carbon emissions more than any other country in the world in recent years —  7.7 percent since 2006. U.S. emissions  fell 1.9 percent last year and are projected to fall 1.9 percent again this year, which will put us  back at 1996 levels. It will not be easy to achieve the reductions Obama promised in Copenhagen — 17 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2020 — but that goal no longer looks out of reach, even in the absence of comprehensive legislation.

Why isn’t this extraordinary story a bigger deal in U.S. politics? You’d think Obama would be boasting about it! Turns out, though, it’s a little awkward for him, since several of the drivers responsible are things for which he can’t (or might not want to) take credit.

Awkward: that whole recession thing

First off there’s the Great Recession, which  flattened electricity demand in 2008. It has never recovered — in fact, in part due to 2011′s  mild winter, it has even declined slightly:

US electricity consumption, 2000-2011

For obvious reasons, boasting about the environmental benefits of the recession is not something Obama’s eager to do.

Awkward: frack-o-mania

The second big driver is the glut of cheap natural gas, which is currently trading at the 10-year low of about  $3 per million British thermal units. This is absolutely  crushing coal, the biggest source of CO2 in the electric sector:

The share of U.S. electricity that comes from coal is forecast to fall below 40% for the year, its lowest level since World War II. Four years ago, it was 50%. By the end of this decade, it is likely to be near 30%.

Here’s U.S. electricity generation from 2000-2012. Look how dramatic  coal’s recent plunge is:

EIA: electricity generation by source, 2000-2012

In April, coal and natural gas  both contributed 32 percent to the U.S. electricity mix — equal for the first time since EIA started collecting data in the ’70s. This is, as Alexis Madrigal  emphasizes, an extraordinary shift, unprecedented in the history of the U.S. electrical system.

It’s helpful to Obama to be able to point to cheap natural gas when people accuse his EPA of killing coal. And it’s helpful in his effort to claim “ all of the above.” But fracking’s potential environmental and health impacts has quickly made it a flash point with his environmental base (and his Hollywood base), so it’s at the very least a fraught subject.

Awkward: Kenyan socialist EPA sharia tyranny

A less significant driver of the switch from coal to natural gas is the EPA’s long overdue rollout of new or tightened clean-air rules on mercurySO2 and NOx, and  CO2. Those rules may do more work later on down the line when/if natural gas prices rise again, but for now the bestanalysis [PDF] shows that natural gas is doing most of the work killing coal. Nonetheless, EPA regs have proven a source of potent right-wing attacks on Obama and he’s probably not eager to call undue attention to them.

Thus: silence in the political world

So: given the fact that the decline in emissions is driven, at least in the conventional narrative, by an explosion in fossil fuel production, a recession, and a series of EPA regulations, it’s not hard to see why Obama isn’t eager to put it front and center. It’s got a little something for everyone to hate.

And of course the right isn’t eager to talk about it either, since conservative dogma tells us that there’s no way to grow the economy and shrink CO2 emissions at the same time … and yet, uh, that’s what’s happening. At the end of 2012, our economy will be much larger than it was in 1996, yet its carbon emissions will be the same. If conservatives acknowledge that it’s possible to loosen the link between climate pollution and economic growth, they’ll have to explain why we shouldn’t do a whole lot more of it.

 
See more stories tagged with: