US carbon emissions rise in 2022 even as renewables overtake coal

America’s greenhouse gas emissions from energy and industry rose 1.3 percent in 2022, continuing to recover from a sharp pandemic decline in 2020 but not quite reaching pre-pandemic levels, according to preliminary estimates published on Tuesday by Rhodium Groupnonpartisan research firm.

Emissions rose even as renewable energy surpassed coal power nationwide for the first time in more than six decades, with wind, solar and hydro power generating 22 percent of the nation’s electricity, compared with 20 percent from coal. Growth in natural gas power generation also offset declines in coal.

The new estimate brings emissions across the country back in line with their long-term trajectory after nearly two years of Covid-related disruptions, said Ben King, associate director at Rhodium Group and author of the report.

“We’re basically on the same trajectory we’ve been on since the mid-2000s,” he said, calling it a “long-term structural decline” but one that “isn’t happening fast enough.”

Two years ago, President Biden promised to accelerate the pace, goal setting to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, an amount believed to be consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Above that threshold, scientists say the risk of climate catastrophe, including life-threatening heat waves and food and water shortages, increases significantly. The planet has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius in the last century.

But Rhodium Group’s analysis suggests the country is not on track to achieve Mr. Biden’s goal:

The recently passed Inflation Reduction Actlandmark climate and tax law should help bend the emissions curve closer to the 2030 target, but even that is will probably fall.

The emissions estimate reflects a continued recovery from pandemic lows in 2020. The initial coronavirus outbreak caused widespread shutdowns and reduced U.S. energy use to the lowest level in decades. with emissions falling more than 10 percent. They rebounded 6.2 percent in 2021 as the economy began to recover, but continued supply chain disruptions and new variants of the coronavirus slowed the recovery. The smaller increase in emissions in 2022 came amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, the resulting global energy crisis and high inflation.

Emissions from power generation fell as renewable energy and natural gas displaced coal, which saw a small and short-lived increase in 2021 due to high natural gas prices. Natural gas is less carbon-intensive than coal, but burning it produces much more methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.

A recent report from the International Energy Agency has estimated that renewable energy sources are on track to overtake coal as the largest source of global electricity generation by early 2025, as countries respond to fossil fuel supply disruptions linked to the war in Ukraine, by introducing stricter policies to divert carbon emissions from oil, gas and coal.

Still, the United States made little progress last year in its two highest-emitting sectors, transportation and industry, which together account for roughly two-thirds of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial emissions rose 1.5 percent and transportation emissions rose 1.3 percent, the latter driven mainly by demand for jet fuel as air travel continues to recover from pandemic-era declines.

Some experts hope the provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act could provide relief money rapid decarbonization in industrial plants and reducing fossil fuel emissions from heavy industry, including cement and steel production. The legislation also extended consumer tax credits for electric vehicles, which typically create fewer emissions than gasoline cars.

The biggest increase in emissions last year came from homes and buildings that burn fossil fuels like natural gas in furnaces, hot water heaters and other appliances. Those emissions rose 6 percent to pre-pandemic levels. Colder-than-average temperatures at the start of the year prompted many Americans to increase their home energy use by turning up the heat.

The Rhodium Group’s estimates do not include emissions from agriculture or forest fires, which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as they burn forests and pastures. Agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, with agricultural activities accounting for 11.2 percent of total United States greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, according to USDA projections.

The report contained some good news: Last year, the country’s economic growth, as measured by GDP, outpaced emissions growth, indicating that the economy was less carbon intensive, Mr. King said. This ‘decoupling’ of economic growth from fossil fuel consumption is critical to charting an economically sustainable path to decarbonisation.

“We’ve seen the challenges that occur when emissions declines are coupled with GDP declines,” he said. “Look at 2020.”

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