Are We Decoupling from Carbon?

coal power plantCritics of proposals to make our country more sustainable often suggest that such measures would raise the prices of products and make it more difficult for the nation to do business–forcing our coveted Gross Domestic Product downward. This argument would suggest that it isn’t possible, or at least very difficult, to reduce the amount of carbon we emit while simultaneously lifting GDP. The thing is, apparently we did that in 2012.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently released a report citing that energy-related carbon emissions decreased in 2012 by 3.8 percent putting them at their lowest level since 1994. At the same time, U.S. GDP increased by 2.8 percent.  Though not representing the same level of progress as 2009 when emissions dropped by 7.1 percent, these new numbers bring evidence of a different kind of progress.  In 2009, the sharp drop in CO2 released into the atmosphere was directly attributed to the recession. The violent contraction in economic activity lead to decreases in miles driven, products made and energy produced. Three years later, the results are different. Despite the fact that both the economy and the population grew, carbon emissions still shrank, suggesting that we are seeing headway in making our society less carbon-intensive.

america 2012 carbon energy emissions

In trying to decipher the causes for the drop, the report cites a mild heating season in much of the northeast, pointing out that it usually takes more energy to heat spaces than to cool them. Surprisingly, residential electricity demand declined in 2012 by 3.4 percent and transmission losses in bringing that energy to homes also declined by 4.8%, pointing to upgrades in our electrical grid that usually loses 6-9% of the power it transports. Transportation also saw declines in carbon production even though the average miles traveled remained flat from the year before, suggesting that the effects of more efficient automobile fleet may be beginning to show.

Perhaps the least surprising observation was the report noting once again that the replacement of coal power generation with natural gas contributed significantly to emissions reductions. While new regulations from the EPA have contributed to the long term closure of some plants, the major force driving a reduction in coal power has been low prices for natural gas (mostly due to the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”). Overall, the EIA determined that the U.S. used less carbon per unit of national GDP, effectively decoupling some portion of emissions from how we live and work.

percent change US emission components

The Road Ahead

In looking to the years ahead the critical question is whether or not these decreases in carbon intensity will continue or reverse themselves or are merely blips in an otherwise upward path. The case against further drops largely revolves around coal. As prices fall, coal power generation may pick up its power contribution from its multi-decade lows. If economic revival was to accelerate then increased activity in travel and industrial production could also have us spitting larger amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

On the other hand, I think the report stands out as a bright spot in the darker background of the country’s task, let alone our planet’s, of reducing its carbon footprint. Not only is it possible that some of the measures we are beginning to employ are actually working, but we still have so many options that we have not even initiated yet.

The efficiency of our car fleet will continue to rise whether or not electric cars ultimately find a place in the heart of American consumers. Residential consumption is rife with opportunities for reduction whether it is through more efficient appliances, tighter exterior envelopes or a switch towards LED lighting. Though some degree of coal power may come with an economic rebound, we still have a number of existing coal plants that are slated to close over the course of the next 5 years including the Salem Power Plant, which will be replaced by one of the most efficient natural gas fired power plants in the country.

Read More: How sustainable can a power plant be? Salem Harbor Station

Given that we are so far away from exhausting our opportunities for sustainable change, I remain optimistic that the prospect of GDP growth and carbon reduction remains possible. Even after we are out of all of the tactics focused on increasing efficiency, the most effective cultural changes will come from actually using less (the difference is important).

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