US Emissions to Drop 9% in 2020, Putting Country Back on Track for Paris Commitment

The U.S. economy is on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
9 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, BloombergNEF reported
Thursday.

It’s a sign of the impact that�COVID-19 shutdowns and the
ensuing recession have had on life in the U.S. When workers stayed
home and the streets emptied out, they reduced emissions from
transportation, which accounted for the largest decline at 4
percent of economy-wide emissions. The power sector drove another
2.8 percent decline, while reduced industrial activity lowered
emissions by another 1.6 percent.

The drastic reduction in planet-warming emissions did not result
from concerted action on climate change, so much as an
unprecedented and deadly pandemic. Without COVID-19, the U.S. would
have released just 1 percent less carbon than in 2019, BNEF
estimated. The painful cessation of activities to stop the spread
of coronavirus delivered the additional 8 percent.

Still, the absolute numbers make 2020 the “greenest” year on
record, BNEF analysts Tom Rowlands-Rees and Melina Bartels
noted.

“The economic disruption of 2020 has inadvertently put the U.S.
back on track to meet the commitments it made under the 2016 Paris
Agreement, prior to President Trump taking the country out of that
pact,” they wrote.

Reduced consumption of gasoline and jet fuel pushed the
transport sector emissions down further than other sectors.
(Graphic courtesy of BloombergNEF)

However, factoring in the record wildfire season moderates the
outlook. The fires burned enough plant matter to release the
equivalent of 2.8 percent of 2019 economy-wide emissions.
Accounting for that means 2020 nets out at a 6.4 percent decline in
overall U.S. emissions.

The authors note that forest fire emissions are not directly
comparable to burning fossil fuels, in that forests can regrow and
sequester carbon again after a burn, whereas burning fossil fuels
emits carbon that stays in the atmosphere. Still, this is an
ominous sign for the arid Western states where massive wildfires
are becoming an annual norm.

Cutting carbon through economic contraction, or through green
investment

The data also pose a messaging challenge for climate activists.
This is the nation’s best performance in modern history in terms of
cutting carbon emissions. But it came about as the result of a
historic economic slowdown that plunged millions into unemployment
and jeopardized businesses across the country. That’s not a recipe
that Americans are eager to repeat. 

Indeed, Republican politicians did not wait long to frame the
economic suffering of the coronavirus era as a preview of what
would happen if the nation takes progressive action to reduce
emissions through a Green New Deal. 

“Democrats seem to think a pandemic is the perfect opportunity
to kill millions more jobs and then give households another $75,000
in debt to pay for the Green New Deal,” Republican National
Committee spokesperson Elizabeth Harrington wrote in an
April op-ed
. (The actual cost of a Green New Deal would depend
on the specifics of future legislation).

Simply because an economic slowdown led to lower emissions does
not mean lower emissions must lead to a slowdown. Indeed, the U.S.
has been trending in a lower-carbon direction for years based on
shutting down coal power plants. Vice President Mike Pence
explicitly praised American innovation for delivering that outcome
in the October vice-presidential debate, despite refusing to affirm
that humans cause climate change. 

Specific policies matter. It’s possible to conceive of a clean
energy transition that costs a ton and raises the price of energy.
But the states that are adopting clean power plants today are
largely doing so because they offer cheaper electricity than plants
burning coal or gas.

A useful bellwether is Texas’s competitive ERCOT market, where
private investors choose to build the plants they think will
deliver the best return. Those developers are
overwhelmingly picking wind, solar and battery plants
today as
their means of extracting profit. 

Electric utilities are another class of investors choosing
carbon-free sources to drive economic returns. Across the country,
utilities are finding they can stop paying for fuel to burn, build
clean energy instead, and return higher margins to shareholders.
While only 10 states have committed to net zero emissions by
mid-century, voluntary commitments to that effect are now common
among major utilities. Even the
handful of utilities
that have not made a full decarbonization
goal are investing heavily in zero-carbon resources.

BNEF expects that emissions will increase in 2021, but that
lingering coronavirus disruptions will keep emissions 5 percent
lower than in 2019. The circumstances of 2020 are unique; more
lasting decarbonization requires additional structural changes to
power production and transportation — changes like what
President-elect Joe Biden campaigned on. 

“Ambitious targets for the power sector will not be sufficient
on their own, and policies driving strong emissions reductions in
other sectors are needed,” the BNEF analysts noted.

Source: FS – GreenTech Media
US Emissions to Drop 9% in 2020, Putting Country Back on
Track for Paris Commitment