The Good News on CO2 Emissions You Haven’t Heard

Posted on May 7th, 2012 by

Amid all the climate change gloom and doom you, may have missed one piece of good news. Everyone knows that CO2 emissions continue to climb year after year…  But what everyone knows is actually wrong.  In fact, carbon dioxide emissions reached their peak levels in the U.S. in 2007. Since then they have dropped and according to Energy Information Administration projections, may not return to 2007 levels.

The sudden drop in emissions starting in 2008 is not hard to explain. Emission levels are correlated with economic activity. The healthier the economy, the more people drive, the more factories produce both products and pollutants, and the more people use electricity. The financial crisis of 2008 put the brakes on economic activity. Consequently, carbon emissions fell. Environmentally that is a good result – just not a very fun way to achieve it.

Based on this, one might expect carbon emissions to resume their climb upward along with the economy which has been ever so slowly, but persistently, recovered since 2008.  But emissions growth resulting from a rebounding economy has been largely offset by a counter trend in the carbon footprint of our electricity generation mix.     

Cleaner Electricity Mix


For decades, coal has been king when it comes to producing electricity in the United States. Unbeknownst to most people, a slow-motion coup is taking place in the energy world. Coal is losing its grip as the electricity fuel of choice due in part to ever tightening regulations and in part due to the ascension of natural gas as a cheaper cleaner alternative to coal.

As coal is being replaced by cleaner fuel sources for electricity, emissions per kilowatt of electricity are steadily going down.  The effect is enough to more or less offset any increase in total electricity being generated to serve an expanding economy.

Nowhere is this new reality more evident than in Texas. The majority of Texas electricity now comes from sources other than coal such as wind and natural gas. Not surprisingly, Texas is the nation’s top producer of natural gas and is in the center of the natural gas boom in recent years. This boom has seen the bottom fall out of natural gas prices as shale drilling techniques have driven up the amount of natural gas extracted from the ground. As a result, electricity rates for most parts of Texas are the cheapest they have been in many years.

At the same time the market is pressuring coal with natural gas as a cheaper and cleaner alternative tough new EPA regulations will drive up the price of compliance for coal power plants further pushing the market toward lower emission fuel sources.

The trend is clear. The EIA projections go out to 2035 and still show total CO2 emissions being 3.9% lower than they were in 2007. Furthermore, many people consider the projections conservative considering they assume no significant technological breakthroughs in alternative energy in the interim.


The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of  the author, Holbert Janson.

Texas Chamber of Commerce Energy Association



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