America’s energy-related carbon emissions dropped 3.8 percent in 2012 to their lowest level in 18 years. Emissions were down even while the American economy grew; it was the largest drop ever recorded in a non-recession year. The Energy Information Administration reports:
Although GDP increased by 2.8 percent in 20121, energy consumption fell by 2.4 percent (2.4 quadrillion Btu) in that same year—the result was a 5.1 percent decline in energy use per dollar of GDP and this meant emissions were about 282 million metric tons CO2 (MMTCO2) lower.
Much of Europe’s recent emissions decreases have been attributed to its anemic economy. But America’s recent green success has come from its ability to decouple economic growth from energy consumption (and therefore carbon emissions). By reducing the energy and carbon intensity of the economy (the amount of energy consumed and carbon emitted per dollar of GDP), the US has been able to lower emissions of harmful greenhouse gases without the enforced energy asceticism many greens believe is necessary.As you can see in the following chart, America has been getting more bang for its energy buck for decades. That trend is expected to continue as it continues to transfer away from an industrial economy and into an information economy:The shale boom also helped to bring emissions down. Natural gas-fired power generation was up 211.8 billion kilowatt hours (kW/h), and was largely responsible for the 215.2 billion kW/h drop in coal-fired generation. Burning natural gas emits roughly half the carbon that burning coal does, so this influx of cheap gas (thanks to fracking) has helped curtail emissions.This wasn’t a one-off event: energy-related emissions have dropped now for the fifth time in the past seven years. Decoupling growth from emissions and resource consumption is one of the great hopes in sustainable development theory, and America is beginning to prove it. Growth is up, emissions are down, and the future is looking better and better.[Graph sourced from the EIA’s 2011 Annual Energy Review and 2013 Annual Energy Outlook]