Tuesday, November 8, 2011

US Carbon Clock Setback 14 Years Despite Defeat Of Cap & Trade

While global carbon emissions spring forward, driven by enormous pollution from China and India, the USA carbon clock falls back 14 years, a significant and paradoxical development. The latest EIA data indicates that sharp drops of carbon pollution from coal (down 11% from the 2005 peak) and oil (down 14%) will rollback in 2011 USA total carbon pollution to 1998 or 1997 levels.

These large reductions in US emissions take place just as Republican Congressional gains make proposals for the national pricing of carbon pollution dead on arrival. Since national policies to price carbon pollution into energy have been defeated, what explains the reductions in US carbon pollution? And will the 2011 carbon totals be an aberration or part of a sustained trend of lower emissions?

Greater energy efficiency that has decreased USA energy consumption to about 2000 levels plus growing substitution of low carbon gas or zero carbon renewables for oil and coal have setback by 14 years the US carbon clock.

Sharp decreases in the prices of low or zero carbon fuels that compete with coal and oil have been vital to declining US emissions. Both natural gas and solar prices have declined 70% since 2008. Wind prices too have declined significantly.

While natural gas, solar, wind took a quick elevator down to lower prices, coal and oil prices rose since 2003 or 2005, when oil and coal carbon emissions peaked in the USA. The combination of higher coal and oil prices and lower prices for competitive fuels is the economic foundation on which the lower carbon pollution trend rests. That foundation looks sustainable, since massive new supplies of shale gas will moderate natural gas prices and the pricing of solar in particular continues to drop rapidly.


  1. John, do you think the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (cap & trade system in 10 northeastern states) has started to have an effect yet on total US emissions?

  2. The effect of RGGI on total US emissions would be small, very small to this point. The RGGI caps at this time are very soft. Most of the reductions nationally are coming in reduced coal and oil emissions. RGGI only deals with power plants, and there is actually little coal or oil in the RGGI states. The oil reductions reflect mainly reductions of emissions in transportation that is again not regulated by RGGI and gas displacing heating oil which also is not regulated by RGGI. Also Governor Christy has taken New Jersey out of RGGI. I think the Republican governor of Maine has wanted to do the same but I am not sure if Maine has formally left RGGI.