As U.S. Carbon Dioxide Footprint Falls, Report Looks at Ways to Continue Emission Decline

As Vice President Joe Biden reaffirmed the Obama administration’s commitment to combat climate change, new data indicates carbon dioxide emissions in the United States in 2012 dropped to their lowest levels since 1994. The report found expansion of renewables, increased efficiency and the increased availability of unconventional natural gas all contributed to the reduction in climate pollution. In fact, by the end of last year carbon dioxide emissions were down about 10.5 percent from 2005 levels.

Further progress toward President Obama’s goal of cutting emissions 17 percent before 2020 may be attainable without Congress. According to a new report from the World Resources Institute, the U.S. could meet the target by combining actions at the state and federal levels. This includes new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations for limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, with the report recommending the administration use the Clean Air Act to do so. It also points to curbing methane emissions from natural gas operations and improving energy efficiency in home appliances and industry to achieve additional emission reductions.

U.S. Power Plants Remain Largest Emitters

Power plants accounted for one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2011, new EPA data suggests. That translates to about 2,221 million metric tons of carbon dioxide—though those emissions dipped 4.6 percent compared to 2010 as more plants burned less coal. The data was gleaned from roughly 8,000 power plants and included an interactive map identifying the largest polluters. Among the top emitters were coal-dependent states, including Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky.

The EPA released the data, collected through the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, for the first time last year when it considered 2010 emissions from 29 sources. In 2011, emissions from those sources dropped 3 percent.

Chu Steps Down, Notes Responsibility to Address Climate

After four years, Energy Secretary Steven Chu has tendered his resignation. In the letter announcing his decision to forgo a second term, Chu writes of his accomplishments and our responsibility to address climate change.

“While we cannot accurately predict the course of climate change in the coming decades, the risks we run if we don’t change our course are enormous. Prudent risk management does not equate uncertainty with inaction … Ultimately we have a moral responsibility to the most innocent victims of adverse climate change. Those who will suffer the most are the people who are the most innocent: the world’s poorest citizens and those yet to be born. There is an ancient Native American saying: ‘We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.’ A few short decades later, we don’t want our children to ask, ‘What were our parents thinking? Didn’t they care about us?’”

Chu notes, in the more-than-3,000-word letter, that better solutions, along with a willingness to accept failure, will be necessary.

“Our ability to find and extract fossil fuels continues to improve, and economically recoverable reser­voirs around the world are likely to keep pace with the rising demand for decades. As the saying goes, the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones; we transitioned to better solutions … The test for American’s policy makers will be whether they are willing to accept a few failures in exchange for many successes.”

Meanwhile President Obama has tapped Sally Jewell, the CEO of outdoor retailer REI, to replace outgoing secretary Ken Salazar as head of the Department of Interior (DOI). Jewell is a both a former petroleum engineer and a longtime advocate for conservation, and if confirmed, she would oversee millions of acres of public lands. Western Energy Alliance President Tim Wigley said, “her experience as a petroleum engineer and business leader will bring a unique perspective to an office that is key to our nation’s energy portfolio.” Some are optimistic that Jewell might continue DOI efforts to develop renewable energy on public land and foster offshore wind power development.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Tim Profeta is the founding director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. The Nicholas Institute is part of Duke University and focuses on improving environmental policy making worldwide through objective, fact-based research in the areas of climate change, the economics of limiting carbon pollution, oceans governance and coastal management, emerging environmental markets and freshwater concerns at home and abroad. In his role at the Nicholas Institute, Profeta has continued to use his experience on Capitol Hill to engage in climate change debates. His research has focused, specifically, on market-based approaches to environmental regulations—particularly energy and climate change policy. Other projects engage his expertise in environmental law and air pollution regulation under the Clean Air Act.