Political Animal


May 25, 2012 5:06 PM US Carbon Emissions Down in 2011?

By Ryan Cooper

So reports Brad Plumer. He explains:

The IEA offers up three reasons for the decline: First, many U.S. power companies have been swapping out coal for somewhat cleaner natural gas, since the latter has become so cheap. That’s helped. The United States also had a mild winter in 2011, which meant less energy was needed for heating. Finally, Americans have been driving less and purchasing more efficient cars of late, which has tempered the country’s oil use. It wasn’t a huge drop. It may prove fleeting. But it was a step toward less carbon.

So, mostly an accident, though a slightly-encouraging one. Which was, of course, canceled out entirely by China—2011 was still the all-time record for carbon emissions. Worldwide, we’re not just doing nothing, we’re accelerating in the wrong direction, releasing more and more every year. Most world leaders have settled on an acceptable increase in overall temperature of 2 degrees Celsius, but it’s slipping out of our grasp.

Brad goes on to detail what will happen if we do nothing, finishing with this tidbit:

North America gets particularly sweaty. And, according to the Met Office, Washington, D.C., would get downright tropical — an extra 13°F or so of heat, on average, by the 2090s. (That’s good news for the approximately zero D.C. residents who walk around saying, “What this city needs is an extra 13°F of heat.”)

This stands out for me because the air conditioning is out in the Monthly offices here in DC and it is uncomfortably hot and muggy already. Another 13 degrees of heat and I’d probably keel over and die.

But stepping back, we should remember that the the 2 degrees C target that everyone has agreed is good is not only slipping out of reach, it’s an extremely risky position itself. It’s one of the many reasons that make covering climate policy so depressing, but it’s important to remember. I’m reminded of the recent New Yorker article about geoengineering to prevent climate change. It’s possible, though dangerous, but the important point is that it’s cheap enough that even a poor country could afford it—like, for example, one about to be swamped by rising sea levels.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • SecularAnimist on May 25, 2012 5:56 PM:

    Ryan Cooper wrote: "Im reminded of the recent New Yorker article about geoengineering to prevent climate change. Its possible ..."

    No, it's nonsense. Like "clean coal", so-called "geoengineering" is just a propaganda scam designed to create the false idea that there is an alternative to rapidly phasing out all fossil fuel use. It's a lie. There is no alternative.

    And the consequences we are facing are rather more serious than sweaty Washingtonians.

    As Fatih Birol, the IEAs chief economist, told Reuters: "When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius (by 2050), which would have devastating consequences for the planet."

    Those consequences include global famine due to drought, the death of oceanic fisheries, the death of forests, the loss of fresh water supplies for billions, the collapse of human civilization and the mass extinction of most life on Earth.

  • Daniel Kim on May 25, 2012 6:17 PM:

    Lower greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. may appear to have been 'accidental', but some portion of that reduction was really deliberate. Increasing fuel efficiency standards for new cars was a deliberate step toward reducing emissions that increased the availability of such automobiles for consumers. In addition, the "cash for clunkers" program removed many older, less efficient vehicles from the road, replacing them with newer and more efficient ones.

    So, maybe not entirely accidental.

  • square1 on May 25, 2012 11:17 PM:

    What SecularAnimist said.

    I have always said that historians will not be kind to climate denialists (GOP) and political cowards (Democrats). But I may be wrong. There might not be any historians.

  • Danny on May 26, 2012 7:44 AM:

    So, mostly an accident, though a slightly-encouraging one.

    No, not an accident at all. Obama's energy strategy is, famously, an "all of the above approach" with the twofold goals of lessening our dependency on foreign oil while minimizing the carbon footprint of our energy use. He has opted to embrace the natural gas explosion as a part of that strategy. He's also put in place financial incentives to facilitate a move away from dirty coal. It seems strange then to say that his policies have nothing to do with business moving from coal to natural gas.

  • Ron Byers on May 26, 2012 7:46 AM:

    square 1, a six degree increase won't totally wipe out the human species. There will be some survivors and they will remember us, but not in a warm and loving way.

  • square1 on May 26, 2012 9:26 AM:

    @RonByers: no, I don't anticipate that all of humanity will be wiped out. But then again I could be wrong. The potential exists for ugly positive feedback loops to make scientists' worst case scenarios look positively pleasant.