U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions Rise in 2013: Troubling Sign for Climate Goals

, , lead economist and climate policy manager | October 21, 2014, 3:18 pm EST
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In a troubling sign, data from the EIA released today show that U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose 2.5% in 2013, from 5,267 million metric tons (MMmt) in 2012 to 5,396 MMmt in 2013. This increase comes after two years of declining emissions. Market trends on their own are clearly insufficient to achieve sustained, sharp reductions in heat-trapping emissions: we need strong policies that drive renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Why did CO2 emissions rise in 2013?

EIA cites two major reasons emissions rose in 2013:

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Photo: Steve Clemmer

  • Colder weather, which increased the demand for oil and natural gas to heat homes and drove an increase in residential sector emissions (nearly half of the total emissions increase in 2013). This also affected commercial sector emissions.
  • More coal-fired electricity generation. Higher natural gas prices in 2013 resulted in a small shift back from natural gas to coal-fired generation. The average price of natural gas for electricity generators rose from $3.54 per million Btu (MMBtu) in 2012 to $4.49 per MMBtu in 2013. Natural gas generation fell 10% while coal-fired generation increased 4.8%.

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What does this increase mean for future emissions?

While emission levels can change from year to year for a variety of reasons, what’s clear is that the overall trend we’re observing is great cause for concern. Emissions in 2013 were just 10% below 2005 levels. We may still find ways to reduce U.S. emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, as the Obama Administration pledged in 2009 in Copenhagen.

But we are far from the trajectory we need to be on to deliver 80% or greater emissions reductions by 2050, which is necessary to meet climate goals. What’s more, it’s clear that relying on low natural gas prices as the climate solution in the power sector is very risky. Natural gas prices are volatile. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel, albeit a cleaner burning one, and it comes with climate, health, environmental and economic risks. From a climate perspective, we need policies that deliver more emissions reductions, much faster. Every year we delay matters as carbon emissions build up in the atmosphere, fueling costly climate impacts.

The Clean Power Plan can help cut power sector emissions

UCS has just released a new analysis that shows that the Clean Power Plan (CPP) could help cut power sector emissions by at least 40% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Strengthening the renewable energy provisions of the CPP can quadruple the amount of renewable energy by 2030, reducing our dependence on fossil-fired generation and driving down emissions.

A strengthened CPP is an important – even historic – first step toward a transition to a low carbon economy. Please send your comments to the EPA by December 1 to ensure that the plan delivers deep emissions reductions. Ultimately, we’ll need more, including action from Congress to set a carbon price and limit economy-wide emissions.

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  • J. Dan

    NPR reported that there is massive release of CO2 from burning limestone to produce lime. How is this factoring into our efforts to reduce CO2 from fossil fuels? And what about the natural release quantities from decaying vegetation?