WASHINGTON – US greenhouse gas emissions from energy and industry plummeted by more than 10% in 2020, reaching their lowest levels in at least three decades after the coronavirus pandemic hit the country’s economy, according to an estimate published in Tuesday by Rhodium Group
However, the steep decline is the result of extraordinary circumstances, and experts have warned that the country still faces huge challenges in tackling global warming pollution. In the coming years, US emissions are expected to return once the pandemic recedes and the economy returns to life – unless politicians take more decisive action to clean up the country̵
“The most significant reductions last year were around transport, which remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels,” said Kate Larsen, director of Rhodium Group, a research and consulting firm. “But as vaccines become more widespread, and depending on how quickly people feel comfortable driving and flying again, we would expect emissions to recover unless major policy changes are made.”
Prior to the pandemic, emissions in America have been slowly but steadily declining since 2005, in large part because utilities that generate electricity are moving away from coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, in favor of cheaper and cheaper clean natural gas, wind and solar energy. Utilities have retired hundreds of coal-fired power plants over the past decade, despite President Trump’s efforts to revive the industry.
Then the coronavirus arrived. As governors blocked their countries last spring and Americans took refuge, emissions began to decline in parts of the economy that had rarely seen steady declines before.
Transport, the country’s largest source of greenhouse gases, saw a 14.7% drop in emissions in 2020 as millions of people stopped driving to work and airlines canceled flights. As travel began to pick up again in the second half of the year, as the United States relaxed its blockades, Americans traveled 15 percent fewer miles last year than in 2019, and demand for jet fuel fell by more than a third. .
Emissions from heavy industry, such as steel and cement, fell by 7% in 2020 as carmakers and other manufacturers dumped fewer goods amid the economic downturn. In American buildings that produce carbon dioxide when they burn oil or natural gas for heat, emissions fall by 6.2% due to both blockage and warmer-than-average weather.
In the electricity sector, emissions fell by 10.3% in 2020 due to a sharp drop in coal combustion. As electricity demand declined across the country, utilities operated their coal-fired power plants much less frequently, as coal became 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 generates significant heat-capturing methane – and made better use of wind and solar energy without emissions.
Renewable energy rose in 2020 as energy companies overcame pandemic disruptions to build a record number of new wind turbines and solar panels ahead of a key deadline for claiming a federal tax credit. Last year, the United States produced about as much electricity from renewable sources as it did from coal, a milestone never before reached.
Overall, the nationwide drop in emissions is the biggest one-year drop since at least World War II, the Rhodes group said, putting the United States at a staggering distance from one of its main climate goals under the Paris Agreement – a global pact tackling climate change.
As part of that agreement, former President Barack Obama has promised that United States emissions will fall 17 percent below 2005 to 2020 levels. President Trump has abandoned the Paris Pact, and before last year it looked like the United States would miss . But after the pandemic, America’s industrial emissions are now approximately 21.5% below 2005 levels.
But this milestone comes with a few warnings. First, these figures do not show an increase in emissions as a result of last year’s record forest fires in the West, which burned millions of acres of forests and lawns, sending carbon dioxide locked into all these trees in the atmosphere.
A preliminary estimate from BloombergNEF in November suggests that fires could offset approximately 3% of last year’s decline in US emissions from energy and industry. While many trees that have burned in flames will eventually grow back, absorbing carbon dioxide as they do, this process will take years. And scientists have warned that fires will become larger and more frequent as the planet warms.
The other warning is that emissions in America could recover once vaccines are widely available and the economy recovers. The Rhodium Group’s report notes that such a recovery occurred after the 2008-9 financial crisis, which led to a sharp drop in emissions. He noted that many sectors, such as air transport and steel production, have already recovered in recent months.
“Unfortunately, 2020 tells us little about what we can expect to see in 2021 and beyond,” the report concludes. “Most of the reduction in emissions in 2020 is due to reduced economic activity, not to any structural changes that would lead to a lasting reduction in the carbon intensity of our economy.”
Scientists warn that even a large one-year drop in emissions is not enough to stop global warming. As long as humanity’s emissions are essentially reset and nations no longer add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the planet will continue to heat up. As if to emphasize this warning, European researchers announced last week that 2020 is quite tied to 2016 as the hottest recorded year.
President-elect Joseph Biden Jr. has made global warming a top priority, aiming to reduce America’s emissions to zero by 2050. Thus, experts say, major new steps will be needed to accelerate the use of renewable electricity, change Americans are moving from gasoline cars to cleaner electric models and rethinking methods such as home heating or steel and cement production.
And these efforts will have to be replicated around the world. On Monday, the International Energy Agency said it would publish a detailed plan in May on how the global economy could reach zero zero emissions by 2050, noting that the global decline in greenhouse gas emissions last year is likely to be temporary, except if countries do not take the opportunity to rethink their dependence on fossil fuels.
“Nothing but a complete transformation of our energy infrastructure will be required,” said Fatih Birol, the agency’s executive director. “This requires decisive action this year, next year and indeed every year until 2050.”