One rare piece of good news on climate has gone little noticed among all the alarming new science and bizarre weather: US CO2 emissions from fossil fuels have been on a steep decline. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that 2009 emissions will be almost 9% lower than in 2005, their highest year on record.
The largest single reason for the decline is (obviously) the recession, but growing investments in renewables and energy efficiency, and a switch from dirty coal to clean(ish) natural gas generation are also responsible. The price paid by electricity utilities for natural gas has halved over the past year -- while that for coal increased by 7%. New exploration and drilling technologies mean that US natural gas reserves are now far higher than thought a couple of years ago, so the price advantage of coal relative to gas is likely to stay low.
The EIA predicts that structural changes in the US energy economy, boosted by the efficiency and renewable subsidies in Obama’s stimulus package, mean that emissions will not regain their 2005 level until 2024. Prominent climate blogger Joe Romm, a former Department of Energy official, points out that EIA’s models fail to take into account inevitable changes in the energy economy in the coming decades. They do not allow for any new policies on clean energy and climate, and no peak oil, “so the only thing one can say for certain about an EIA forecast is that there is no chance whatsoever it will come true.” Romm believes that believes that US emissions have peaked and will never return to their 2005 level.
The drop in emissions means that we are already more than halfway to the goal of the cap-and-trade bill passed by the House of Representatives of a 17% cut from 2005 to 2020 -- showing just how unacceptably weak the goal is (science shows that the US needs to cut its emissions to around half of 2005 levels).
If the targets aren’t tightened in whatever cap-and-trade bill gets signed into law by Obama (the Kerry-Boxer bill in the Senate is slightly better with a -- 20% target), its likely that far too many allowances (the “permits to pollute” that are the currency of the trading scheme) will be available, crashing the permit price and removing the incentive for polluters to act to bend down the emissions curve.
Falling emissions, and the possibility that we’ve reached peak carbon for the US, is great news. But is also shows that Congress is missing a massive opportunity to promote policies that would accelerate the emissions drop to levels close to where the science suggests we need to be, while also promoting all the co-benefits of a decarbonizing economy: better health, cleaner air, green jobs, improved housing, and more pleasant towns and cities.