If the U.S. doesn’t change course, carbon emissions will rise again in the 2030s

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, January 30, 2020

A coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

Absent any major policy shift in this decade, the amount of carbon dioxide the United States adds to the atmosphere each year is projected to begin rising by the 2030s, according to a new government report.

That’s sobering news: It means the United States will be nowhere near where climate scientists say it needs to be to reduce its contributions to climate change and help forestall the most dangerous global warming.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration, an independent federal agency that monitors energy use, is projecting a reversal of trends that seem like progress. Since the mid-2000s, annual U.S. carbon emissions have crept down as coal plants close and more fuel-efficient cars make their way to the road.

The new report, released as part of the agency’s “Annual Energy Outlook,” projects carbon dioxide emissions from the power and transportation sectors to continue to fall through the current decade as the cost of solar and wind energy declines and as states implement tighter renewable energy requirements. Yet it predicts emissions will resume “modest growth” in the following decade.

There are several reasons for this. The biggest source of future growth for carbon emissions is heavy industry, which EIA modeling suggests will come to increasingly rely on cheap natural gas.

And the string of closures of coal-fired power plants over the past several years will come to a halt as all of the oldest and most uneconomic ones are taken offline, causing emissions from electricity generation to plateau after years of decline.

“We are seeing shallow decarbonization in the power sector with the big shift to gas and away from coal,” said David G. Victor, an international relations professor at the University of California at San Diego. “But in a few years that well runs dry and EIA projects that electricity emissions will stop falling. That will be a watershed for the U.S.A. because the one sector that accounts for nearly all of the progress the country has made on emissions — however scant — has been from the power sector.”

And without any new rules requiring automakers to produce more efficient cars and light trucks, emissions from the transportation sector will begin ticking up in the 2030s, too. Not helping the transportation emissions situation is the Trump administration, which is trying to weaken mileage standards for new vehiclesthrough model year 2026, a move backed by the petroleum industry but opposed by California and other left-leaning states.

In a news conference announcing the report, Energy Information Administration chief Linda Capuano cautioned their work “is a projection, not a prediction.”

Ernest Moniz, former energy secretary under President Barack Obama, said the report underscores the need for massive government research for a hard-to-decarbonize industrial sector, including investing in technologies that convert electricity into clean-burning hydrogen fuel for factories or that capture carbon before it reaches smokestacks.

“Their outlook is based on no policy change and no major technology breakthrough. So it’s basically business as usual, and it’s no surprise that there is no large carbon emissions reduction in that scenario,” he said.

By 2050, annual emissions will be 4 percent lower than 2019 levels, according to the EIA modeling. In contrast, the world’s top climate scientists, in a major U.N. report in November, said global greenhouse gas emissions must begin falling by 7.6 percent each year starting in 2020 to meet the aims of the 2015 Paris climate accord, an international agreement in which nations volunteered to reduce emissions.

Neither the United States nor the rest of the world is cutting greenhouse gas emissions anywhere near that rate. In fact, global greenhouse gas emissions rose slightly in 2019 to hit another record high, according to an estimate last month from the Global Carbon Project.

And to boot, President Trump has promised to pull the United States out of the accord by the end of 2020.

For environmentalists, there is at least one bright spot: The EIA projects electricity generation from renewable sources to surpass that from natural gas sometime during the 2040s, even after the current federal subsidies for wind and solar energy expire.

But the report’s findings have political implications: It shows the enormous challenge that would face a Democrat, should one win the White House this year, in curbing climate change.

Nearly every candidate seeking the Democratic nomination for president has called for achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by at least the middle of the century. Former vice president Joe Biden vowed to end coal, oil and gas leasing on public lands; Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) go further by calling for bans on fracking and fossil fuel exports.

“This projection of relentless climate pollution is nothing short of terrifying,” said Jean Su of the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice program. “With Trump officials crippling emissions rules, climate-friendly lawmakers must build support for truly bold policies that avert the bleak future predicted by the EIA.”