U.S. emissions plummet to lowest levels in post-World War II era

James Marshall
January 13, 2021

Buildings across the U.S., which produce carbon dioxide when they burn oil or natural gas for heat, saw emissions fall 6.2% thanks to the state's lockdowns and the warmer weather. This causes temperatures to rise and drives more extreme weather, ice melt, sea level rise and ocean acidification. Trump disavowed the Paris pact, and, before a year ago, it looked like the United States would miss that target.

The drop means that the United States would outperform its pledge made under the Copenhagen Accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

Owing to the economic shutdown caused by coronavirus, emissions reportedly dropped by 21.5 per cent, when compared to 2005.

But the report's authors suggested that the dip should not be seen as a guarantee that the United States can simply meet its more ambitious pledge under the Paris climate deal to cut emissions 28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

Global Carbon Project estimates that emissions of heat-trapping gases decreased by around 7% globally a year ago. That might look like a significant drop, but it won't make any meaningful difference to climate change.

The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere actually surged to a new record high previous year, the World Meteorological Organization said in November.

Under the Paris Agreement, the vast majority of nations agreed to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees.

Last year's dramatic plunge means the USA has met a key emission-cutting target set by the Obama administration.

"Nothing short of a total transformation of our energy infrastructure will be required", said Fatih Birol, the agency's executive director. This took down emissions across sectors of the economy that had rarely seen sustained drops before, such as transportation, the main source of emissions in the country.

The report by the Rhodium Group said the emissions decline in the United States a year ago outpaced the Great Recession of 2009 when emissions dipped 6.3%.

"The most significant reductions previous year were around transportation, which remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels", said Kate Larsen, a director at Rhodium Group, a research and consulting firm.

But there are signs the drop was just temporary.

At the peak of restrictions demand for jet fuel was down 68% on 2019, with petrol down 40%.

There is some good news too.

Energy emissions also fell sharply, due to a decline in the use of coal.

Before the pandemic hit, America's emissions had been slowly but steadily declining since 2005, in large part because utilities that generate electricity have been shifting away from coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, in favor of cheaper and cleaner natural gas, wind and solar power. The share of renewables rose to 18% past year from 16% in 2019. But this was mostly owed to the coronavirus pandemic and not because of any significant climate action - which means the U.S. still has a long way to go to get its emissions under control.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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