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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.

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Or consider the dramatic progress in energy use in buildings, which was also not anticipated by EIA. From  Architecture 2030 comes this graph, which compares the EIA Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) projections on U.S. building stock from 2005 with the ones from 2012:

EIA projections for building energy consumption, 2005 vs 2012

The growth in U.S. building stock is slowing (in part — but only in part! — due to the recession), but growth in building energy consumption is dramatically slowing, thanks to advances in energy efficiency technology. EIA now expects CO2 emissions from the building sector to decline by 2035. That’s a pretty big change from going up by over 50 percent!

And that’s just with straight-line projections. If “best available demand technologies” are deployed, it looks like this:

EIA projections for building energy consumption, best available tech, 2005 vs 2012

It’s within our reach to reduce the CO2 emissions of the building sector almost 22 percent! Given that building standards are one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement on energy these days, it’s not crazy to think that we’ll get closer to the latter projections than the former.

And the EIA projections for building energy consumption, Architecture 2030 notes, do not incorporate “sustainable planning applications or passive heating and cooling, natural ventilation, daylighting, or spatial configuration and site design strategies,” all of which are gaining in popularity and sophistication.

In short, there’s reason to think the demand-side story is similar to the supply-side story: official projections are dramatically underestimating potential.

Worry, but be happy

To sum up: yes, the explosive growth of natural gas and the Great Recession played a big part in U.S. climate emissions declining in recent years. And either of them could reverse in years to come. But they are not the whole story. There are real transitions underway — seedlings that can be watered and fertilized.

As Brad Plumer notes, America’s modest progress to date still leaves the world on a pathway to climate catastrophe. But it also shows that projections are not destiny. Things can change, and quickly.


David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can follow his Twitter feed at

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