The Best News from 2009

12/30/2009 03:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The last year of the decade may best be remembered for one piece of particularly good news: carbon dioxide emissions from the United States have peaked, are coming down, and (if we keep working) will continue to decline. Although this was partly a consequence of the economic crisis (not a good way to solve the problem), the main reason it happened is because, even though Congress has dithered about passing energy and climate legislation, the rest of America has been acting. 

So, if the first step to get out of a hole is to stop digging, the U.S. has made a start. We're almost ten percent below our peak emissions of CO2. And beyond the short-term numbers -- which do in part reflect the economy -- there's been a stunning change in our long-term emissions trajectory. We've cut our expected level of emissions for 2020 by more than 20 percent -- mostly from permanent reforms of our energy sector. 

Here are the key statistics:

U.S. CO2 emissions peaked in 2005 at 5,971 million tons and remained at about that level through 2007. In 2008, though, they declined to 5,800 million tons. In 2009 they fell even further, to 5,450 tons. We're already 8.5 percent below our 2005 peak. The Energy Information Administration expects a slight increase in 2010 as the economy recovers, but only to 5,532 million tons. 

Back in 2005, we were headed for 2020 emissions of 7,500 million tons. In the latest Energy Department estimate, emissions in 2020 are expected to be only 5,851 million tons -- below our 2007 peak. That's a staggering shift. And the government's estimate assumes that there won't be any improvement in public policy between now and 2020 -- in fact it assumes that the current tax incentives for renewable energy will be allowed to expire!

Why do I think that 2009 is the year in which we can say we know that U.S. CO2 emissions have already peaked and are now poised to start declining?

Look at the year's events. For example, 2009 was the first year in decades when not a single coal-fired power plant started construction. Reliance on existing coal-fired electrical capacity slumped, while renewables and natural gas increased. In August 2009 coal use was down 9.4 percent; gas use was up 8.9 percent. 

And 2009 was also the year that utilities began shutting down a significant number of America's existing fleet of coal-fired power plants. In North Carolina, Progress Energy said it would shut down 11 coal plants by 2017. Duke Energy declared it would retire 18 of its plants over the next decade. Coal shipments from Wyoming continued to decline after peaking two years ago, and experts warned the state that Wyoming has already reached peak coal.

Peak oil consumption -- for the U.S. -- also seems at hand. Reform of the transportation sector accelerated in 2009. The amount of driving Americans do peaked in 2004, leveled off for three years, and began to drop in 2007, well before the economic crisis. 

In 2008 driving declined by five percent compared with a year earlier. With lower gas prices this year, driving increased slightly but not enough to suggest that we are back on an upward path. What's more, the cars that Americans now want to drive get better mileage. The best evidence for this was the Cash for Clunkers program -- even though the rules did not require it, the average new vehicle purchased got 61 percent better fuel economy than the clunker being traded in.

As a result, demand for gasoline declined by about 10 percent. The Energy Department says this change is permanent. Exxon-Mobil agrees, and U.S. oil companies are shutting down oil refineries, after complaining several years ago that they needed to build scores of new ones. In 2009, as five refineries shut, U.S. refining capacity actually declined for the first time.

In spite of all this, energy-sector reform remains the most important policy challenge facing the nation -- whether you are worried about climate disruption, dependence on foreign oil, public health, or America's competitive position in the world. Our energy economy is still underperforming, underinvested, uncompetitive, slow to innovate, and far too dependent on carbon-intensive fuels and technologies. Carbon waste is far easier -- and probably greater -- than the waste in the health-care sector that gets so much attention.

So we still have a lot of work to do. But this year I think we can say we've turned a corner -- even if Congress isn't ready to acknowledge it.