Absent any major policy shift in this decade, the amount of carbon dioxide the United States adds to the atmosphere each year is projected to begin rising by the 2030s, according to a new government report. That’s sobering news: It means the United States will be nowhere near where climate scientists say it needs to be to reduce its contributions to climate change and help forestall the most dangerous global warming. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, an independent federal agency that monitors energy use, is projecting a reversal of trends that seem like progress. Since the mid-2000s, annual U.S. carbon emissions have crept down as coal plants close and more fuel-efficient cars make their way to the road.
The new report, released as part of the agency’s “Annual Energy Outlook,” projects carbon dioxide emissions from the power and transportation sectors to continue to fall through the current decade as the cost of solar and wind energy declines and as states implement tighter renewable energy requirements. Yet it predicts emissions will resume “modest growth” in the following decade. There are several reasons for this. The biggest source of future growth for carbon emissions is heavy industry, which EIA modeling suggests will come to increasingly rely on cheap natural gas.
And the string of closures of coal-fired power plants over the past several years will come to a halt as all of the oldest and most uneconomic ones are taken offline, causing emissions from electricity generation to plateau after years of decline. “We are seeing shallow decarbonization in the power sector with the big shift to gas and away from coal,” said David G. Victor, an international relations professor at the University of California at San Diego. “But in a few years that well runs dry and EIA projects that electricity emissions will stop falling. That will be a watershed for the U.S.A. because the one sector that accounts for nearly all of the progress the country has made on emissions — however scant — has been from the power sector.”