I can just hear people looking around sporting a big shrug and palms pointed upward with a questioning look on their faces. “What’s the problem? Things are fine, we’re on a decline!” The Energy Information Administration recently released analysis that carbon emissions decreased by a record 7% in 2009. Undeniably, this is great news. Since we began measuring releases of CO2, never has the country declined so much within a single year. The danger is for some to mistake this event as reason to slack off instead of the impetus to push harder. As economic recovery in the U.S. begins to take hold, more than ever, now is the time to tighten our belts so that economic expansion happens as sustainability as possible.
The prevailing, and rather uncontested, view is that the decline is predominantly due to the economic recession. An article by David Gabel, points to the decrease in manufacturing in calendar 2009 which stems a great deal of emissions. The construction industry has been slowed to a grinding pace with 1 out of every four construction workers currently out of work. Less building means less materials like steel and concrete (which is one of the largest carbon-emitting industries in the U.S.). Fewer products coming off the assembly lines leads to fewer being shipped via the burning of fossil fuels. The article also points out incremental increases in car efficiency and more power producers veering towards cleaner methods of generation. According to the EIA, the carbon intensity of the energy supply dropped 2.3%.
Nevertheless, these strides could still be decidedly temporary, all but evaporating if our economy and culture returns to business as usual over the next few years. Without a doubt, this is not the time to take our hands off the wheel. It is seemingly easy to point to our reductions (the second in a row after a 2008 decline) as reason for not needing higher standards or tighter regulations. Let us not forget that the decline is not the response of us doing anything the same. The ways we are changing from the norm is why emission levels are falling. It should be clear enough that change is the path to making more progress on this front and two steps forward and three steps back.
Lowering our carbon footprint as a nation may be one of the best silver linings of this economic debacle. With any hope, this decrease can help push a climate bill through congress given that it is only easier to meet emission targets when the distance to the goal is significantly less. Some of us would think that we should only set more stringent goals for reduction given all that we have made so much progress, but most of our government does not seem to use the same sort of logic. Continuing to push forward can help us build on this progress and rebuild our economy around methods of making this new benchmark last.
Photo Credit: Energy Information Administration