The first preliminary numbers are out for U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide from energy use in 2009 and they are astounding. U.S. emissions of the leading global warming pollutant declined by an unprecedented 6.7 percent between 2008 and 2009. Going back to 2007, when the current recession began, emissions are down by nearly 10 percent.
In other words, the U.S. emitted less carbon dioxide to the atmosphere last year than we did in 1996 when Bill Clinton was president and the World Wide Web was new.
Before celebrating too much, it’s worth acknowledging that, yes, the economic recession is the number one cause of the decline. When factories aren’t running, the demand for energy goes down and so do emissions.
But it is untrue that global warming pollution and economic growth move in lockstep. It is possible to grow the economy while producing less pollution. Specifically:
- While U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are lower than they were in 1996, America’s gross domestic product is not. In fact, America’s GDP is 37 percent higher in inflation adjusted terms, than it was in 1996. Not only can we build an economy that is more energy efficient and less polluting, but we’ve already been doing (albeit too slowly) for years.
- Clean energy policies are also making an impact. The biggest contributor to the decline in emissions last year was a dramatic reduction in output at coal-fired power plants. Of the decline in coal-fired power plant production last year, about three-quarters could be attributed to reduced overall demand for electricity (driven largely by the economy, but with an assist from aggressive energy-efficiency measures in a number of states). The remaining quarter is power that has been replaced by cleaner forms of generation – largely natural gas, but increasingly wind.
The big issue moving forward is how to ensure that when America’s economy starts growing again, our impact on the global climate does not. Investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency can provide power for our economy, and can even provide a source of jobs to get America growing again.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.