08/29/2012 11:04 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Carbon Emissions in U.S. Have Dropped. Could "Not Bad" Be Good?


The U.S. Energy Information Agency recently reported that the United States -- the all-time career leader in greenhouse gas emissions -- has lost a step. And that's a good thing. America's carbon dioxide output for the first quarter of this year dropped to a rate not seen since 1992.

While it would be great to think environmental policy-making was the cause of this good news, that appears not to be the case. Market-driven factors, such as the affordability of natural gas, and a shift to fuel-efficient cars (prompted by a poor economy) are significant players in driving this development. As is lower utility usage, driven by a warmer winter (thank you, global warming).

I choose to find this news encouraging: A drop in emissions is good; the free market helping fight the problem is good; a negative feedback loop (a reduction of fossil fuel use triggered by the very warmth that fossil fuel use is causing) is also a good thing.

Others are not as "glass is half full" as yours truly, however. Climate Central writer Michael D. Lemonick has channeled his inner McKayla Maroney in saying that the emissions reduction leaves him unimpressed. As Lemonick correctly points out, natural gas produces carbon dioxide (albeit less than coal), drilling for natural gas releases methane (a potent greenhouse gas), another shift in the economy could shift folks from natural gas back to coal, and (despite the U.S. emissions reduction) the world's overall emissions continue to increase.

Sounds a bit grim. But environmental activist Laurie David disputes the green community's reputation as gloomy. "...that's a myth. How could we keep on fighting if we weren't optimistic?"

"I don't know a single environmentalist that is not an optimist. When I realized that, that made me very hopeful. Everyone I know -- even people who have been working on nuclear issues for 20 years -- they're optimists. The truth is we can solve a lot of these problems. These are all man-made problems and they can be man-solved. That's the good news."

News of global warming's impacts is rarely upbeat. It's nice to enjoy a win when one presents itself. I'm going to let myself savor the moment.

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