America’s carbon emissions dropped three percent last year, a significant dip that came to us courtesy of—you guessed it—the shale boom. Cheap, abundant natural gas displaced coal as America’s top power source, and in the process got rid of the copious sooty local air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions that those coal plants spew (natural gas burns roughly half as much CO2 as coal). New data from the Energy Information Administration shows that U.S. energy-related emissions fell 1.7 percent:
U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2016 totaled 5,170 million metric tons (MMmt), 1.7% below their 2015 levels, after dropping 2.7% between 2014 and 2015. These recent decreases are consistent with a decade-long trend, with energy-related CO2 emissions 14% below the 2005 level in 2016.
That’s right: over the past 11 years, energy-related carbon emissions have plummeted 14 percent. Greens will want to credit their darlings, wind and solar power, but those energy sources (zero emissions as they may be) still only make up 5.6 percent and 0.9 percent of U.S. power production, respectively. It’s not a coincidence that the biggest shift in the American energy landscape—the shale boom—has coincided with this drop in emissions. Bargain-priced natural gas is making the U.S. a global green leader.
But perhaps more significantly, the country is growing greener by getting more efficient. Carbon intensity, a measure of how much carbon dioxide is emitted per unit of economic activity, has been falling of late: it dropped 3.3 percent in 2016, and 5.3 percent the year before that. This lets us have our cake and eat it, too, in other words.
Environmental progress doesn’t need to come at the cost of economic growth, and in fact when those two goals clash, it’s environmental policies that are often first forgotten. Smart greens know that the best way to achieve their stated aims is to back strategies that wed growth with better environmental stewardship. Hastening the shift to a less carbon intensive information economy is one example; fully embracing the shale energy revolution and all of the green benefits it entails is another.
Whether greens get on board or not, American emissions are dropping even as the economic grows, and for that, we have fracking to thank.