US Global Warming Emissions under President Trump: 3 Striking Findings from New EPA Report

February 12, 2019
Photo: USCapitol/Flickr
Josh Goldman
Former contributor

The EPA just released a draft of its latest annual report on US greenhouse gas emissions. The report documents the amount of heat-trapping gasses—carbon dioxide, methane, and more—that the US has released into Earth’s atmosphere. This year’s edition includes data through 2017 and is notable because it includes information for the first time about global warming emissions that have occurred during the President Trump era.

To spare you the trouble of digging through all 667 pages of the full report, here are a few key findings that run the gamut from good to bad to downright ugly.

1. The good: Total US emissions decreased slightly in 2017

Good news everyone! US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions decreased 0.3 percent in 2017 compared to 2016. This decline was due largely to the continued shift from coal to natural gas, an increased use of renewable energy, and a year of milder weather that helped cut emissions from the electric power sector by 4 percent in 2017.

Emissions on a per capita and per GDP basis also fell, though population and GDP rose in 2017, offsetting some of these gains. Overall, emissions in 2017 were only 1.6 percent higher than 1990-level emissions, down from being 15.7 percent higher than 1990 in 2007.

2. The bad: Global warming emissions increased in every sector other than electric power generation

The power sector might be getting cleaner, but no other sector measured by EPA demonstrated any similar progress in decreasing emissions. Transportation, the largest single source of emissions in the US, saw emissions rise by 0.8 percent in 2017 while the industrial, residential, and commercial sectors all emitted at least 1 percent more (see Table ES-2 from the report below).

Moreover, the overall 0.3 percent decrease represented a slower rate of decline than had occurred in 2015 and 2016, when emissions dropped by 2 percent compared to each previous year. This slower rate of emissions decline means that it will be more difficult for the US to keep emissions down as population growth and an improving economy are forecast to skyrocket energy demands over the next several decades.

3, The ugly: A small year-over-year decline in emissions is nowhere near what is needed to avoid catastrophic climate change

A 0.3 percent decrease in emissions isn’t going to cut it if we’re going to avoid truly catastrophic impacts from climate change, including more deadly heat events, extreme storms and precipitation, property-consuming sea level rise, and reduced crop yields, among other things.

To reduce the worst of these impacts—and limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that global net CO2 emissions need to drop 45 percent by 2030 compared to 2010 levels, and reach ‘net-zero’ global emissions by 2050—a far cry from the 0.3 percent reduction seen in the US in 2017. (Net-zero means that any global warming emissions are offset by sinks that take carbon out of the atmosphere, like tropical forests or oceans, or by geoengineering efforts that can cool Earth’s temperature but remain largely unproven and untested.)

As the IPCC puts it, all pathways to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure and industrial systems.” I wouldn’t call a 0.3 percent decrease in GHG emissions either rapid or far reaching and, given President Trump’s environmental and energy agenda of decreased regulation and more pollution, hope for sweeping action from the executive branch isn’t on the immediate horizon.

There’s still time, however. The pathways the IPCC has identified to meet the 1.5°C target don’t really start kicking into gear until 2022 with the major reductions that are needed to be seen by 2030 (see chart below). For the US, this means that we need to get down to 3,807.63 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in 2030—a reduction of more than 41 percent compared to 2010 levels. Continued small reductions like 2017’s 0.3-percent drop just won’t get us there.

The Trump administration is moving in the wrong direction on climate change

While the urgency of acting on climate change is more obvious than ever, the Trump administration is instead doing everything it can to delay action and slow progress on cutting emissions. President Trump and his appointees at the EPA, Department of the Interior, and other agencies are pushing for more and more investment in fossil fuel extraction while simultaneously rolling back many of the policies that have helped us bring down emissions.

The administration has announced its intention to leave the Paris climate deal, undermining global cooperation on this vital issue. It’s going after rules that limit power plant emissions and methane leaks, two major contributors to climate change. And it’s trying to freeze improvements in vehicle efficiency, one of the biggest and most significant climate policies on the books.

Things could always be worse of course, and any emissions decline is better than none, but the Trump administration is clearly not setting the country on a path to prevent the worst climate scenarios from becoming reality in the years and decades ahead.