US Carbon Dioxide Emissions Fall as Global Emissions Rise

A new report from the International Energy Agency is sparking headlines across the media. “Global carbon dioxide emissions soared to record high in 2012” proclaimed USA Today; The Weather Channel led “Carbon dioxide emissions rose to record high in 2012”; and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer added “The world pumped a record amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2012.”

The figure below (taken from the IEA summary) provides the rest of the story.

It shows a breakdown of the change in carbon dioxide emissions from 2011 to 2012 from various regions of the globe.


Notice that the U.S. is far and away the leader in reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, while China primarily is responsible for pushing global CO2 emissions higher. In fact, CO2 emissions growth in China more than offsets all the CO2 savings that we have achieved in the U.S.

This will happen for the foreseeable future. Domestic actions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions will not produce a decline in the overall atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration.  The best we can hope to achieve is to slow the rate of growth of the atmospheric concentration—an effect that we can only achieve until our emissions are reduced to zero. The resulting climate impact is small and transient.

And before anyone goes and getting too uppity about the effectiveness of “green” measures in the U.S., the primary reason for the U.S. emissions decline is the result of new technologies from the fossil fuel industry that are leading to cheap coal being displaced by even cheaper natural gas for the generation of electricity. As luck would have it, the chemistry works out that that burning natural gas produces the same amount of energy for only about half of the CO2 emissions that burning coal does.

A new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that as a result of these new technologies (e.g., hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling), globally, the technologically recoverable reserves of natural gas are nearly 50% greater than prior to their development.

Currently, the U.S. is the leader in the deployment of these technologies, and the effects are obvious (as seen in the figure above).  If and when more countries start to employ such technologies to recover natural gas, perhaps the growth in global carbon dioxide emissions will begin to slow (as compared to current projections).

Considering that possibility, along with the new, lower estimates for how sensitive the global average temperature is to carbon dioxide emissions, and the case for alarming climate change (and a carbon tax to try to mitigate it) is fading fast.