Estimates released by the Rhodium Group on Tuesday show that due to the coronavirus pandemic that has hit the US economy, US greenhouse gas emissions from energy and industry plummeted by more than 10% in 2020, reaching the lowest level in at least three years.
However, the sharp decline was caused by special circumstances, and experts warned that the country still faces huge challenges in controlling its warming pollution. In the next few years, it is widely expected that once the pandemic subsides and the economy recovers, US emissions will rebound unless policymakers take stronger action to clean up the country’s power plants, factories, cars, and trucks.
Before the pandemic, U.S. emissions have been declining slowly and steadily since 2005, largely because utilities for generating electricity have switched from coal (the dirtiest fossil fuel) to cheaper and cleaner Of natural gas, wind and solar energy. In the past decade, despite President Trump’s efforts to revitalize the industry, utilities have eliminated hundreds of coal-fired power plants.
Then, the coronavirus arrived. Last spring, when the governor put the states under lockdown and Americans were placed in the proper places, emissions across the economy began to plummet. Previously, there have been few sustained declines.
Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. By 2020, its emissions have fallen by 14.7%. The reason is that millions of people stopped driving to work and airlines cancelled flights. As states eased blockades, travel began to increase again in the second half of the year, but the total mileage of Americans last year decreased by 15% compared to 2019, and demand for jet fuel fell by more than one-third.
Emissions from heavy industries such as steel and cement have fallen by 7% in 2020, as automakers and other manufacturers have reduced the number of commodities in the economic downturn. Buildings in the United States generate carbon dioxide when they burn oil or natural gas for heating, but due to work stoppages and warming weather, average emissions fell by 6.2%.
In the power sector, due to the sharp decline in coal burning, emissions in 2020 have fallen by 10.3%. With the decline in national power demand, as coal has become the most expensive fuel in many parts of the country, the frequency with which utility companies operate coal-fired power plants has greatly reduced. Instead, they use more natural gas (carbon dioxide emissions are less than coal, but still produce a lot of methane to capture heat), and use more emission-free wind and solar energy.
Renewable energy has surged in 2020 as energy companies overcome the interference of the pandemic and built a record number of new wind turbines and solar panels before the critical deadline to require federal tax credits. Last year, the U.S. generated electricity from renewable energy sources and coal generated electricity, which was an unprecedented milestone.
The Rhodium Group said that overall, the reduction in national emissions is the largest one-year reduction since at least World War II, and it has brought the United States a surprising distance from a major climate goal under the Paris Agreement. It is up to nearly 200 governments to deal with climate change.
As part of the agreement, former President Barack Obama promised that by 2020, U.S. emissions will fall by 17% from 2005 levels. President Trump denied the Paris Convention, and the United States did not seem to achieve this goal before last year. But after the pandemic, industrial emissions in the United States are now about 21.5% below 2005 levels.
However, this milestone carries some caveats. First, these figures do not account for the increase in emissions caused by the record Western wildfires last year. Mountain fires have destroyed millions of acres of forests and grasslands, and discharged the carbon dioxide trapped in all these trees into the atmosphere.
A preliminary estimate by BloombergNEF in November suggests that wildfires may offset the 3% decline in US energy and industrial emissions last year. Although many trees that grow in flames will eventually grow back and absorb carbon dioxide, this process will take several years. Scientists warn that as the earth warms, wildfires will become larger and more frequent.
Another warning is that once the vaccine is widely distributed and the economy recovers, US emissions may rise again. The Rhodium Group report pointed out that a similar rebound occurred after the 2008-9 financial crisis led to a sharp drop in emissions. It pointed out that in recent months, many industries such as aviation and steelmaking have begun to rebound.
The report concluded: “Unfortunately, 2020 hardly tells us what we can see in 2021 and beyond.” “The vast majority of emissions reductions in 2020 are due to reduced economic activity, not because of any structure. Sexual changes will lead to a continuous decrease in the carbon intensity of our economy.”
Scientists warn that even one year’s significant reduction in emissions will not be enough to prevent global warming. Until human emissions are basically zero and countries no longer add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the earth will continue to heat up. As if to emphasize this warning, European researchers announced last week that 2020 is likely to be tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record.
President-elect Biden called for the top priority of global warming and set the goal of reducing U.S. emissions to net zero by 2050. Experts said that they will require new major steps to accelerate the use of renewable energy to generate electricity and move to the U.S. People go from gasoline-burning cars to cleaner electric cars, and then rethink the methods of heating the home or the production of steel and cement.
These efforts will need to be promoted globally. On Monday, the International Energy Agency said that it will release a detailed blueprint in May to show how the global economy will achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and pointed out that unless countries take measures, the decline in global greenhouse gas emissions last year is likely It is temporary. The opportunity to rethink their dependence on fossil fuels.
Fatih Birol, the executive director of the agency, said: “There will be no need for a complete renovation of our energy infrastructure.” “This requires decisive action this year, next year, and actually every year until 2050. “