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Analysis shows U.S. energy carbon emissions spiked in 2018

A coal-fired power plant in West Virginia. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A new Rhodium Group analysis shows that U.S. carbon emissions from energy — which is the overwhelming cause of emissions — jumped by 3.4% last year, ending years of declines.

The big picture: The news comes after the EU-funded Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) concluded that 2018 was Earth's 4th-warmest on record, with the past 4 years serving as the planet's hottest seen since instrument records began in 1880 (and likely well before that).

  • "This marks the second largest annual gain in more than two decades — surpassed only by 2010 when the economy bounced back from the Great Recession," Rhodium said of the preliminary data.
  • U.S. emissions have been generally declining for a decade, but last year's jump comes after the pace of emissions cuts has been decelerating.

Why it matters: Rhodium's study shows that the U.S. is falling farther off the pace from its pledge to cut overall greenhouse gas emissions by 26%–28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

  • To hit that target, energy-related CO2 emissions would need to fall by an average of 2.6% annually by then, and even more if declines in other GHGs slow, according to Rhodium.
  • That would be more than twice the pace of cuts between 2005 and 2017, and "significantly faster than any seven-year average in US history," they say.

Details: Rhodium's study found that 2018 U.S. CO2 emissions were up in all major sectors: electricity, transportation, buildings and industry.

  • Power generation from coal — the most carbon-emitting fuel — fell again last year, but overall power demand rose and was met largely with gas, despite renewables' growth.
  • When it comes to transportation — now the biggest emissions source — gasoline demand dipped very slightly, but that was vastly outweighed by increases from trucking and aviation.
  • Buildings and industry had the biggest increases, with emissions from each sector rising by about 55 million metric tons. Some of the building emissions increase stems from a cold winter.
  • But more broadly, Rhodium notes that modest improvements in the efficiency of furnaces aren't offsetting the effect of population growth and increasing demand for building energy.

The big picture: Axios' Andrew Freedman notes that last year had a global average surface temperature that was 0.2°C colder than 2016, which was the warmest year in Copernicus' dataset, but more than 0.4°C above the 1981–2010 average. Scientists at C3S also find...

  • The average temperature of the last 5 years was 1.1°C, or 1.98°F, higher than the pre-industrial average.
  • This is significant since temperatures are edging closer to the 1.5°C aspirational warming target.

Go deeper: Key global warming target slipping out of reach, UN scientists warn