A new study from an economic research group shows that U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) rose about 3.4% last year, including a 1.9% rise in emissions from power generation.
The New York-based Rhodium Group, which released its findings on Jan. 8, said its study used data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and other sources. The group said its figures are estimates because some 2018 data is not final. It also said its numbers are in line with recent estimates from the Global Carbon Project, a group that works with researchers on greenhouse gases and climate change, which reported U.S. emissions likely rose 2.5% last year.
The increase in emissions could be the second-largest in the past 20 years. Trevor House, a partner at Rhodium, told the Washington Post that the rise likely would not have been as steep if the Trump administration had not rolled back Obama-era pollution controls.
Houser, speaking specifically about the power sector, said, “I don’t think you would have seen the same increase.” The report noted the 2018 rise was topped only by a 2010 increase of 3.6%, as the economy recovered from recession. House also said the report shows the U.S. has not yet “successfully decoupled U.S. emissions growth from economic growth.”
Trump Relaxes Emissions Rules
The Trump administration in the past year has relaxed emissions rules for the power generation and transportation sectors. The Rhodium analysis found emissions from transportation rose 1% last year.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last year moved to give states more leeway in setting emissions standards for power plants, with its Affordable Clean Energy rule offered as a replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. Last month, the EPA said limiting emissions of mercury and other toxins from coal- and oil-fired power plants is not cost-effective and should not be considered “appropriate and necessary.”
The EPA in a statement on Dec. 28 said it is “providing regulatory certainty by transparently and accurately taking account of both costs and benefits.”
In announcing new standards for the transportation sector last year, Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao, along with Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the EPA, wrote that the Obama-era standards would “impose significant costs on American consumers and eliminate jobs.” They said new government rules would “give consumers greater access to safer, more affordable vehicles, while continuing to protect the environment.”
Environmental groups have decried the administration’s moves to relax emissions standards. Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, on Tuesday in a statement said: “While Trump is trying to manufacture a crisis on the border to swindle the public into paying for his unpopular, destructive wall, the climate crisis is getting more dangerous before our eyes. If Trump really cared about protecting the public, he’d address the climate disasters that are costing lives and thousands of dollars right now. Instead, he is actively making a bad situation worse with his backwards policies and lies. Trump’s failure of leadership will not soon be forgotten by history or the American people. Meanwhile, states, cities, and grassroots leaders will keep driving down emissions by retiring coal plants and replacing them with renewable energy, and that is progress he can’t stop.”
To Brune’s point, the Rhodium Group report noted that as of the end of October, 11.2 GW of coal-fired power generation capacity had closed in the U.S. in 2018, and another 2.5 GW of capacity was scheduled to retire by year-end.
EIA Expected Emissions Rise
The EIA in its most-recent Short-Term Energy Outlook forecasts that U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions will have risen by 3.0% in 2018, after a 0.8% decline in 2017. It said U.S. energy-related emissions of CO2 dropped 14% from 2005 to 2017. The Rhodium report noted that some of the 2018 rise could be attributed to the health of the U.S. economy, which contributed to more airline travel, on-road shipping, and industrial emissions from factories and other manufacturing businesses.
The report showed emissions from industry, including chemicals, refineries, steel, and cement, rose by 5.7%.
The U.S. is the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs), behind China, and followed by the European Union and India. Though U.S. emissions still remain well below 2005 levels, global emissions have risen more than 20% during the same period, according to the EIA, which notes global emissions of CO2 have risen to record levels consistently since at least 1980.
Michael Mehling, deputy director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the Post: “It’s not an isolated phenomenon. Such political developments, including the rollback of domestic climate policies in the U.S., tend to have a considerable lead time before you can actually see their reflection in physical emission trends.”
The Obama administration, in the run-up to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, said the U.S. would pledge to reduce GHG emissions by as much as 28% below 2005 levels by 2025, though the country has never been on target to reach that goal. President Trump has said the U.S. will no longer participate in the Paris accord, promising to withdraw from the plan in 2020.
U.S. emissions from the power sector had steadily declined in recent years due to a move away from coal-fired generation toward more natural gas-fired and renewable energy resources. The EIA reports that natural gas fueled about 32% of the nation’s electricity generation in 2017 (2018 data has not been compiled). It said coal accounted for about 30%, with nuclear energy providing about 20%, and renewables—including solar, wind, and hydro—accounting for most of the rest.
—Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).