US Headed For Massive Decline In Carbon Emissions: 9 Percent Drop In Last Two Years


Carbon Peak Image credit:Natalee Parochka, Fine Art America

For years now, many members of Congress have insisted that cutting carbon emissions was difficult, if not impossible. It is not. During the two years since 2007, carbon emissions have dropped 9 percent. While part of this drop is from the recession, part of it is also from efficiency gains and from replacing coal with natural gas, wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

At the Earth Policy Institute, we believe that the United States has ended a century of rising carbon emissions and has now entered a new energy era, one of declining emissions. Peak carbon is now history. What had appeared to be hopelessly difficult is happening at amazing speed. (Read our full report.)For a country where oil and coal use have been growing for more than a century, the fall since 2007 is startling. In 2008, oil use dropped 5 percent, coal 1 percent, and carbon emissions by 3 percent. Estimates for 2009, based on U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) data for the first nine months, show oil use down by another 5 percent. Coal is set to fall by 10 percent. Carbon emissions from burning all fossil fuels dropped 9 percent over the two years.

Beyond the cuts already made, there are further massive reductions in the policy pipeline. Prominent among them are stronger automobile fuel-economy standards, higher appliance efficiency standards, and financial incentives supporting the large-scale development of wind, solar, and geothermal energy. (See supporting data.)

Efforts to reduce fossil fuel use are under way at every level of government--national, state, and city--as well as in corporations, utilities, and universities. And millions of climate-conscious, cost-cutting Americans are altering their lifestyles to reduce energy use.

For its part, the federal government--the largest U.S. energy consumer, with some 500,000 buildings and 600,000 vehicles--announced in early October 2009 that it is setting its own carbon-cutting goals. These include reducing vehicle fleet fuel use 30 percent by 2020, recycling at least 50 percent of waste by 2015, and buying environmentally responsible products.

Electricity use is falling partly because of gains in efficiency. The potential for further cuts is evident in the wide variation in energy efficiency among states. The Rocky Mountain Institute calculates that if the 40 least-efficient states were to reach the electrical efficiency of the 10 most-efficient ones, national electricity use would be reduced by one third. This would allow the equivalent of 62 percent of the country's 617 coal-fired power plants to be closed.

Actions are being taken to realize this potential. For several years DOE failed to write the regulations needed to implement appliance efficiency legislation that Congress had already passed. Within days of taking office, President Obama instructed the agency to write the regulations needed to realize these potentially vast efficiency gains as soon as possible.

The carbon-cutting movement is gaining momentum on many fronts.


  • In July, the Sierra Club--coordinator of the national anti-coal campaign--announced the hundredth cancellation of a proposed plant since 2001. This battle is leading to a de facto moratorium on new coal plants. Shifting from coal to natural gas cuts carbon emissions by roughly half. Shifting to wind, solar, and geothermal energy drops them to zero.

  • Thirty-four states have adopted renewable portfolio standards to produce a larger share of their electricity from renewable sources over the next decade or so. Among the more populous states, the renewable standard is 24 percent in New York, 25 percent in Illinois, and 33 percent in California.

  • In 2008, a total of 102 wind farms came online, providing more than 8,400 megawatts of generating capacity. Forty-nine wind farms were completed in the first half of 2009 and 57 more are under construction. More important, some 300,000 megawatts of wind projects (think 300 coal plants) are awaiting access to the grid.

  • U.S. solar cell installations are growing at 40 percent a year.

  • 15 large solar thermal power plants that use mirrors to concentrate sunlight and generate electricity are planned in California, Arizona, and Nevada.

  • The U.S. car fleet is shrinking. The estimated scrappage of 14 million cars in 2009 will exceed new sales of 10 million by 4 million.

  • Big gains in fuel efficiency will come with the shift to plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars. Not only are electric motors three times more efficient than gasoline engines, but they also enable cars to run on wind power at a gasoline-equivalent cost of 75¢ a gallon. Almost every major car maker will soon be selling plug-in hybrids, electric cars, or both.

  • In this new energy era carbon emissions are declining and they will likely continue to do so because of policies already on the books. We are headed in the right direction. We do not yet know how much we can cut carbon emissions because we are just beginning to make a serious effort. Whether we can move fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change remains to be seen.


For the full report. For more information on a plan for cutting carbon emissions, see Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization by Lester Brown, available for free downloading.

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