Who Needs Paris: U.S. CO2 Reductions Astonishing Without Paris Agreement

U.S. CO2 Emissions down 14% since 2007 peak, and within 3% of 1990 level

By Bob Clark

While considering President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, it is important to understand U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are steadily declining since peaking in the year 2007 and are approaching the 1990 level, even without this global agreement. The U.S Energy Information Administration provides this estimated data in its monthly report, the Monthly Energy Review.  Here’s a chart of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from the Energy Information Administration report, estimated for the years 1973 through last year 2016:

Most fascinating is approximately 61% of the decline in carbon dioxide emissions since the year 2007 is due to the substitution of natural gas fuel for coal in electric power generation.  (Natural gas fired electric power generation is some 40% more efficient than that of coal which uses a century’s old steam boiler technology versus the jet age natural gas combined cycle turbine technology…and the latter keeps getting steadily more efficient.)

A quarter of the decline in CO2 emissions since peak is due to the displacement of coal power by wind power.  Ten percent is due to a decrease in electric energy consumption, which I coin as electric energy use efficiency improvements.  Finally, five percent is due to the displacement of coal power by solar power. (derived from Monthly Energy Report tables 12.1 and 7.2a.)

Going forward there is still a lot of coal power which could be displaced by natural gas power.  This would require a more global disbursement of fracking and horizontal drilling technologies which have radically altered the U.S. domestic production of both oil and natural gas (see charts below).  Either this, or the U.S. build and complete pipeline and export terminals for supplying more of the world’s demand for natural gas in power generation (via conversion to natural gas liquids and back again to dry natural gas, then put through generating turbines).

My review of U.S. General Accounting Office Report “GAO-14-836 Energy Policy” suggests federal government subsidization of natural gas is very minimal at pennies on the dollar.  By comparison, wind and solar federal government subsidies amount to 30% or more.

This leaves me curious as to the possibilities and costs of sequestering carbon dioxide by simply growing more trees, then converting the growth to lumber/building product (sequestering for decades) versus continued subsidies and mandates prescribing renewables.  I have heard the drawback to sequestering by planting more trees is that there are limits on land suitable for doing so.  I intend to research sequestering via tree planting and conversion to lumber.  My own City of Milwaukie (Oregon) is drafting a climate action plan which will probably be solar “friendly;” and yet I am left wondering if it might be easiest to just implement voluntary tree planting programs or plantings on public lands and right away.

(It is interesting too that the Energy Information Administration is mixed in its views about the carbon reduction effectiveness of biomass fuel substitution for fossil fuels, page 188 of the Monthly Energy Review.)

Bob Clark is a retired economist living in Milwaukie, Oregon. Clark previously worked for the Oregon Public Utility Commission and BPA.