As COVID-19 hobbled the economy, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from energy and industry dropped more than 10% last year, reaching a three-decade low.
But the plunge came at a cost and on its own does little to sway sobering predictions that greater renewable energy use is needed and needed quickly to help the U.S. create a lasting pollution decline.
The 10.3% 2020 U.S. emissions drop outpaced that seen after the Great Recession of 2009 when emissions dipped 6.3%, says Rhodium Group, which published its findings Tuesday.
“With emissions down 21% below 2005 levels, this means the U.S. is expected to far exceed its 2020 Copenhagen Accord target of a 17% reduction below 2005 levels,” said Kate Larsen and other researchers, writing in the report.
“However, 2020 should not in any way be considered a down payment toward the U.S. meeting its 2025 Paris Agreement target of 26%-28% below 2005 levels,” the group, which includes Hannah Pitt and Alfredo Rivera, said. “The emission reductions of 2020 have come with an enormous toll of significant economic damage and human suffering. With coronavirus vaccines now in distribution, we expect economic activity to pick up again in 2021, but without meaningful structural changes in the carbon intensity of the U.S. economy, emissions will likely rise again as well.”
The Trump administration pulled the U.S. from the voluntary Paris pledge alleging spotty compliance from other big emitters. President-elect Joe Biden has promised reinstatement. The U.N.-linked Paris pact aims to hold the increase in average global temperatures “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and ideally no more than 1.5C (2.7 F), compared to pre-industrial levels.
Several of the hardest hit economic sectors — including transportation, electric power and industry — are typically the leading sources of U.S. GHG emissions. With the possible exception of the power sector, where coal’s decline has been driving a steady reduction in power sector emissions over the past decade, emission reductions in 2020 resulted largely from reductions in overall economic activity.
Travel demand faced the steepest drop-off this year, leading to a 14.7% decline in transportation sector emissions between 2019 and 2020, Rhodium said. Americans drove 15% fewer miles in 2020 compared to 2019 and the demand for jet fuel fell by more than one-third.
Power sector emissions dropped 10.3, paced by a nearly 19% reduction in emissions from coal generation, year-on-year. That’s the largest such decline in recorded history, breaking last year’s record fall. Over the past decade, utilities have retired hundreds of coal-burning power plants despite President Trump’s efforts to revive the industry.
Industrial emissions were down 7.0% and emissions from buildings were down 6.2%, year-on-year, the report showed.
“The vast majority of 2020’s emission reductions were due to decreased economic activity and not from any structural changes that would deliver lasting reductions in the carbon intensity of our economy,” the Rhodium researchers said. “If COVID-19 and the resulting recession hadn’t happened, we estimate that U.S. emissions would have declined by only around 3% this year, driven in large part by the decline of coal-fired power generation and to a lesser extent the reduction in heating demand due to warmer winter weather.”
The team said with growth expected to bounce back in 2021 (most forecasts currently project GDP growth of 3% to 4%), emissions will likely increase as well absent a concerted effort.
Last year’s spate of intensifying natural disasters, including western U.S. wildfires, did have its own impact in an otherwise less-polluted year.
Even as pollution emissions declined from other sources including vehicle exhaust and power plants, the amount from fires increased sharply, said researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego. The findings underscore the growing public health threat that doctors say climate change brings.
Nationwide, wildfires were the source of up to 25% of small particle pollution in some years, the researchers said.
An Associated Press analysis of data from government monitoring stations found that at least 38 million people in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana were exposed to unhealthy levels of wildfire smoke for at least five days in 2020. Major cities in Oregon suffered the highest pollution levels they had ever recorded.
The year featured another development that could help reduce pollution in a more lasting way. Renewable energy surged in 2020, in large part because the industry built a record number of new wind turbines and solar panels to take advantage of a federal tax credit. The nation produced roughly as much electricity from renewable sources last year as it did from coal, a milestone not seen before.