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Trends in Green House Gas Emissions of the USA

P. K. Gautam is Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • February 22, 2013

    According to the US Department of State’s US Climate Action Report 2010, US GHG emission in 2007 amounted to 7,150 tetragrams of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent—a 17 per cent increase over 1990 levels. This report of 2010 is the mandated fifth National Communication (Natcom) on US climate change actions. The US previously released Climate Action Reports in 1994, 1997, 2002, and 2006. Thus, the final evidence for 2012 will only come in the next US Natcom of 2013-14. However, now there is much better transparency in data reporting. In February 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency of the US released data for 2011. Power plants remain the largest stationary source of GHG emissions, with 2,221 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (mmtCO2e), roughly one-third of total US emissions. Emissions for 2011 from this source were approximately 4.6 per cent below 2010 emissions, reflecting an ongoing increase in power generation from natural gas and renewable sources. Petroleum and natural gas systems were the second largest sector, with emissions of 225 mmtCO2e in 2011. Refineries were the third-largest emitting source, with 182 mmtCO2e, half a percent increase over 2010.

    Due to new energy saving technologies and a doubling in the use of renewable energy in 2012, US carbon emission fell to their lowest level (it has fallen 10.7 per cent from 2005 baseline) since 1994. This, it is claimed, brings America more than halfway towards targets of cutting emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels over the next decade.

    It is important to note, however, that the US emissions have reduced only in relative terms. In no way does it make the US economy “green” or lead to any action to mitigate climate change. Availability of cheap gas in plenty will further lead to reduction of focus on renewables. The temporary respite due to gas is like a bankrupt alcoholic, who cannot afford quality liquor, switching over to cheap country-made hooch. Financial and economic incentives to develop and research renewable sources of energy, such as solar and thermal, will reduce. Combined with future finds of Arctic oil, it is clear that fossil fuels will remain the main workhorse of both the electricity and transport sectors.

    At the same time, the use of coal in Europe has now increased. Coal is cheaper in Europe because its domestic shale gas industry is lagging and also because Europe will take time to build an infrastructure to import liquefied natural gas in large amounts. The result is that, in Europe, renewables are displacing gas but not coal. For example, Germany, in view of its decision to have no more nuclear power, is also building coal-fired plants. In the UK, coal use is increasing.

    The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) of 1992 acknowledges concerns of climate change due to human activities. It notes that the largest share of historic and current emissions has originated in developed countries. Importantly, it recognizes the need for developed countries to take immediate action. The US is a member of the UNFCC but has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which has mechanisms for the developed countries to reduce emissions (mitigation). The US remains one of largest polluters with 4 to 5 per cent of the population and nearly a quarter of the global green house gas (GHG) emissions, including a large stock of historic GHG in the shrinking common atmospheric space. The availability of natural gas due to unconventional sources like shale gas in recent times, amongst other reasons, has led to a relative decline in the US emissions. In future, this will have a geopolitical impact by diminishing fossil fuel addiction and US imports from turbulent regions such as West Asia. At the same time, the seriousness of climate security cannot be wished away.

    The major change is the production of shale gas in the US. From being an importer, the US may soon become an exporter of natural gas. This domestic availability of gas has led to reduction in the use of coal for electricity production. David Victor of the University of California, San Diego estimates that a modern gas fired power plant emits roughly two-fifths as much carbon as a new coal plant. In 1988, the contribution of coal was 60 per cent and in 2010 this was 42 per cent. By mid-2012, gas and coal separately contributed to a third of power production. The MIT Technology Review shows that advanced drilling technologies like horizontal drilling and hydrofracking have now made it possible to extract natural gas in shale deposits in areas such as Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky. More side effects are in the offing due to fracking—a necessary evil in the shale gas business which pollutes ground water and is still understudied (like whether it will lead to earthquakes?). Fracking also results in the emission of fugitive gas. On February 3, 2013, Al Gore told Fareed Zakaria on CNN that fracking leads to fugitive emission of methane which is much more potent in global warming potential terms than carbon dioxide. A report in The Scientific American also warns that leaks and flaring of methane could undermine the benefits of cutting down carbon emissions from power generation. One needs to be aware of this side effect and a recent satellite picture of the US at night showed areas where shale gas is being extracted lit up as bright as Chicago city due to fugitive and uncontrolled emissions.

    The shale gas glut has made news headlines ignore the impact of climate change—a looming national and international security problem. This impact is substantiated by available evidence. A February 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes that the recent decline of Arctic Sea ice has played a critical role in recent cold and snowy winters. The US Science Advisory Committee’s Draft Climate Assessment Report argues that there is “strong evidence” that global warming has roughly doubled the likelihood of extreme heat events, contributing to drought and wildfires. Permafrost is melting in Alaska and the US is experiencing more extreme rainfall and winter snowstorms. Other evidence from around the world includes the following:

    1. Deficient South West Monsoon in India. Annual Indian output of grain may fall this year to 250 million tones (MT).
    2. Power grid collapse and relapse in north India in July 2012 during poor rainfall was caused by overdrawal of electricity by electrical pumps for irrigation purposes.
    3. Hurricane Sandy in the US in November 2012.
    4. Super Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines in December 2012.
    5. Australian heat wave of January 2013 and the flooding of Jakarta due to the annual quota of rainfall being delivered in less than a week in catchment areas.

    Developed and industrialized members of the Kyoto Protocol like Canada, Russia, Japan and New Zealand have either decided to leave the Kyoto Protocol or to remain but not participate in a second commitment period from 2013. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recommended a minimum of 25 to 40 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020 against the 1990 level, in order to limit the rise of global temperatures to two degrees Celsius by 2050. A MIT study shows that the increased use of shale gas might lower carbon emissions somewhat in the next 5 to 10 years, but at best it will keep them flat through 2050.

    In total historical stocks and current emissions, the US is a principal source. The current decline should not make us forget about climate change, and a renewed push is necessary to discuss actions and policies that mitigate the complex issue of climate change. As stated by US President Barack Obama in his State of the Union Address in February 2013:

    “But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods—all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science—and act before it’s too late.”

    With some respite due to a theoretically reduced emission from the US, the future of climate change now demands more cooperation in the spirit of common but differentiated responsibility. India’s stand is that it will not only not exceed the emission levels of developed nations, but that it would also cut emissions by 25 per cent by 2020. The key to climate security, however, is with the US. A short-term respite in energy sufficiency is a double-edged sword. Developing countries must press for more cooperation from the developed countries for technology and funds for adaptation.

    Note: The author thanks Dr. Kiran Magiawala for providing references to literature.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.