Thursday, February 7, 2013

Greenhouse Gas Emissions in U.S. No Longer Matter

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA released the second year of reported greenhouse gas emissions data from large sources, posting it on its website in case you want to view it, but the data is summarized above. The 2011 data was collected through the mandated Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Reporting Program, and includes information reported from facilities that emit large quantities of greenhouse gasses. Greenhouse gases are believed by the EPA to be the primary driver of climate change, and these large facilities account for about half of the greenhouse gas emissions in the nation. While the planet generates greenhouse gases, mankind has vastly increased the generation of greenhouse gases by drilling for and recovering coal, oil and gas from the earth then burning those fuels to generate electricity, power automobiles and manufacture and deliver all the products of our modern life.

The data that was reported to the EPA shows that power plants remain the largest stationary source of greenhouse gas emissions, with 2,221 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent (mmtCO2e), roughly one-third of gross U.S. emissions. (The United States has significant woodlands that absorb carbon dioxide and act as a carbon dioxide sink so that net emissions for the U.S. are approximately 1,000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide less than CO2e generated.)  The transportation sector which consists of small non-stationary sources is the second largest generator of greenhouse gas emissions, but is not tracked by the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program.  Petroleum and natural gas systems were the third largest sector, with emissions of 225 mmtCO2e in 2011. This was the first year this group of generators were required to report. Refineries were the next largest emitting source, with 182 mmtCO2e, slight increase over 2010. The major uses of energy in the United States are heating of residential and commercial buildings (11%), industry (20%), transportation including cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships (27.4%), and electric power generation (40%). Overall, CO2 emissions in the United States in 2011 fell by 1.7% to an estimated 5,32o million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions net of the carbon sinks that are our vast forests and open lands.  U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide are less than 10% higher than they were in 1990 while the population has grown by 24% over the same period.
US Greenhouse Gas Emissions from EPA

To achieve this reduction the EPA has used regulations that will ensure that total CO2 emissions are reduced over time. In 2012 EPA proposed the first Clean Air Act standard for carbon dioxide. Under the new rule, new power plants will have to emit no more than 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of energy produced. That standard effectively changes the fuel of choice for all future power capacity additions to natural gas, nuclear, or the renewable category (with government subsidies), and EPA has begun action to reduce CO2 emissions from existing plants.  In addition the EPA and the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) new millage and emission standards for automobiles and light trucks for model year 2012 through 2025 requiring continued improvement of about a 5% per year in average fuel economy from 2016 when they are required to have at least a 35.5 mpg fleet average for vehicles sold in the U.S. and will have to boost car and light truck fuel economy to an average 56.2 miles per gallon by 2025 significantly reducing the use of fuel.   Passenger cars, light trucks and motorcycles represent 17% of the national greenhouse gas emissions. With the CO2 standard and fuel economy standards the U.S is on track to reduce their CO2 emission in the coming decades, but that will have little if any impact on global CO2 concentrations. Though we remain the nation with the highest CO2 emissions per citizen, we are no longer the nation with the highest total CO2 emissions.

According to the annual report ‘Trends in global CO2 emissions’, released  by the Joint Research Centre and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), global emissions of CO2 reached 34 billion metric tons in 2011. The top emitters of CO2 in 2011 were: China (29%), the United States (16%), the European Union (11%), India (6%), the Russian Federation (5%) and Japan (4%). China, the largest emitter of CO2 increased their emissions the most. China contributed almost three quarters of the global increase, with its emissions rising by 720 million metric tons, or 9.3% to 8,460 million metric tons of CO2, and is now driving global CO2 emissions bringing China within the range of 6 to 19 metric tons of CO2 per capita emissions of the industrialized countries.  It is estimate that China will emit around 10 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2013 entirely negating reductions from all other nations.  There is no interest in reducing CO2 emissions or even stopping emissions growth in China. They are not yet a rich nation and are currently experiencing the coldest winter in 28 years. Though Beijing is becoming aware of the impacts of particulate air pollution, they are far from being concerned about global CO2 emissions. China remains focused on food and growth. 

The climate of the earth is constantly changing on a geological time scale, but the geological record hints that sudden shifts can happen. The controversy over both the science and policy relating to climate change is far from over, but clearly the rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and oceans will have significant impact on the ecology of the planet and mankind. Policy mandates to have the United States adopt constraints on fossil fuel energy consumption will have little impact on the global level of CO2, and our CO2 emission and economy no longer appear to be in a growth phase.  However, the earth’s atmosphere is interconnected and worldwide CO2 emissions will continue to grow powered by China and India in the short run. We need now to appropriately respond to the changing planet and prepare to respond to those changes to ensure that mankind survives.

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