U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions Decline

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Source: Environment & Climate News

U.S. carbon dioxide emissions fell by more than 6 percent in 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Energy Information Administration report. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions as a whole fell almost 3 percent.

The agencies expect to find emissions fell by an even greater amount in 2009, but figures are not available yet.

Downward Trend Continues
U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have fallen in three of the last four years and are currently below year-2000 levels.

The United States made continual gains in both energy efficiency (energy used per dollar of GDP) and carbon intensity (CO2 emitted per dollar of GDP) in the past decade. Pacific Research Institute researcher fellow Thomas Tanton reports U.S. companies and the federal government have invested more than $133 billion since 2000 in technologies that reduce emissions. U.S. oil companies, Tanton observes, have been leading the way.

"From 2000 to 2008, the carbon dioxide intensity of the U.S. economy-measured as metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCO2e) emitted per million dollars of gross domestic product (GDP)-improved by over 15 percent, or 1.7 percent per year," Tanton said.

Big Oil Leads the Way
"Oil and gas industry investments over the last decade in GHG mitigating technologies have contributed to this declining trend. Since the year 2000, the U.S.-based oil and gas industry has invested $58.4 billion-44 percent of the $132.9 billion total-in end-use, fuel substitution, non-hydrocarbon technologies, and enabling technologies," noted Tanton.

By comparison, Tanton reported, all other private sector investments in emission reduction have equaled $55 billion.

And despite a growing presence in the economy, the federal government's investment in efficiency and mitigation technologies was just $19 billion, less than a third of the investment made by the oil and gas industry alone.

Emissions Cuts Stifle Economy
Despite these gains, sustained economic growth will require growth in energy use, which will preclude the sharp decline in greenhouse gas emissions sought by proposed federal legislation, observes Todd Myers, environment director of the Washington Policy Center. Ongoing efficiency improvements may decrease the amount of energy used per unit of economic output, but sharp emissions cuts are currently incompatible with a growing economy, he says.

"Given the failure of cap-and-trade in Europe to cut emissions, some will conclude the only effective way to reduce emissions is to stifle growth. It seems that only a prolonged recession or depression would result from federal proposals to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, as pending federal legislation proposes."

"At what price, success?" Myers asked.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., (Sterling.Burnett@ncpa.org) is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.