Jan 10, 2022 - Energy & Environment

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions jumped in 2021

U.S. power generation by energy source
Data: Rhodium Group; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios

Just-released data reveals the scope and details of U.S. carbon emissions increases as the economy rebounded from COVID-19 restrictions, highlighting how White House climate goals may slip out of reach absent major new policies.

Driving the news: America's emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases increased in 2021 compared to 2020, largely due to a jump in coal use, according to a new report from the climate consulting firm the Rhodium Group.

Why it matters: The report zeroes in on trends in the power sector and transportation as a key reason for the emissions bounce back and makes clear that the emissions trend puts the country further off course when it comes to meeting its emissions targets under the Paris Climate Agreement.

The big picture: U.S. emissions increased 6.2% when compared to 2020 levels, but they still wound up at about 5% below that of the pre-pandemic year of 2019. The new report, released Monday and based on preliminary data, shows that emissions grew slightly faster than the economy did.

  • The report points to the 17% jump in coal-fired power generation compared to 2020, as well as an increase in road transportation, most of it in the form of hauling freight.
  • The U.S. went from having emissions that were 22.2% below 2005 levels in 2020 to just 17.4% below 2005 levels last year, the report shows. The U.S. has a target of cutting emissions to 50 to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Details: The Rhodium report shows that the two sectors with the biggest increase in emissions compared to 2020 were transportation, followed by electric power.

  • With transportation, which comprises the largest source of U.S. emissions, much of the increase was due to a surge in demand for consumer goods, which kept freight trucks on the road, whereas commuting life never quite returned to normal for passenger vehicles.
  • In fact, road freight was the only mode of transportation that Rhodium says surpassed 2019 emissions last year, with aggregate diesel demand climbing 9% from 2020 levels, and coming in at 0.4% above 2019 levels.
  • The electric power sector, which is the second-largest net source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., saw its emissions jump by 6% above 2020 levels, though they remained at 4% below 2019 levels.
  • The reason for this uptick in emissions, Rhodium says, is "a sharp rise" in coal generation, which amounted to a 17% uptick compared to the year before.
  • It was the first annual increase in coal generation seen in the U.S. since 2014. The overall trend has been a decline in coal use and renewables have increasingly picked up more market share.

Context: The reason for coal's comeback of sorts has to do with market conditions, as natural gas prices hit more than twice their 2020 rate, largely due to lower production in the wake of the COVID-related oil price collapse in 2020, Rhodium stated.

  • Natural gas generation fell by 3% in 2021, while renewables increased by 4%.
  • Renewables reached a new milestone, comprising 20% of U.S. electricity generation in 2021, the report found.

What they're saying: Kate Larsen, a partner at Rhodium and report co-author, said the rebound in emissions is "Largely a story about coal's rebound" due to increased natural gas costs.

  • "I think that's a sign that the fate of us greenhouse gas emissions is largely in the hands of oil and gas producers, because the market for natural gas is one of the primary drivers of coal's decline, and of U.S. emission reductions over the last decade," Larsen told Axios. "That wouldn't have happened if we had regulatory backstops for, or other ways to prop up the cleaner fuels."
  • The lack of progress on federal climate legislation may ensure this dynamic continues, Larsen said.
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