America’s energy-related carbon emissions have fallen 12 percent, according to numbers provided by the Energy Information Administration. As you can see above, it hasn’t been an entirely smooth transition, but it’s clear that the United States is emitting significantly less greenhouse gases (GHGs) as a result of its energy consumption. So what happened? Here’s a hint—it rhymes with hale. The EIA reports:
Energy-related CO2 emissions can be reduced by consuming less petroleum, coal, and natural gas, or by switching from more carbon-intensive fuels to less carbon-intensive fuels. Many of the changes in energy-related CO2 emissions in recent history have occurred in the electric power sector because of the decreased use of coal and the increased use of natural gas for electricity generation.
More than two-thirds of this reduction in energy emissions that we’ve seen over the past decade has occurred at power plants, and most of these emissions savings have come as a result of natural gas displacing coal as the country’s single most important power generation source. This, of course, is a direct result of the shale revolution, which has unleashed huge quantities of domestically sourced natural gas, making that hydrocarbon a downright bargain. Natural gas is outcompeting coal on price, and it’s doing so while emitting just half of the GHGs as coal—hence the downward slope of our energy-related emissions.
But while we can see a line of best fit would creep lower in the graph above, you’ll have noticed large variance in month-to-month emissions. Much of this comes from weather, as a large number of too-hot or too-cold days will lead to increased energy consumption (and therefore emissions) as people temperature-regulate their homes. The overall health of the economy also has a bearing on these numbers, which helps explain the precipitous drop in 2008 and early 2009. Over these past ten years, however, the American economy has grown, making these energy-related emissions reductions all the more impressive. The EIA continues:
Adjusted for inflation, the economy in 2015 was 15% larger than it was in 2005, but the U.S. energy intensities and carbon intensities have both declined. On a per-dollar of gross domestic product (GDP) basis, in 2015, the United States used 15% less energy per unit of GDP and produced 23% fewer energy-related CO2 emissions per unit of GDP, compared with the energy and emissions per dollar of GDP in 2005.
This is what green growth looks like. Too many environmentalists are stuck in an archaic and self defeating line of thinking that holds that growth and green progress are mutually exclusive. As we can see, they’re not, and we can expect an even wider divergence between GDP and emissions (a phenomenon called “decoupling“) as the American economy continues to move away from the energy- and carbon-intensive manipulation of “stuff” to the much more efficient and green manipulation of information.
And along the way, let’s not forget to give fracking the eco-credit it so richly deserves.