US greenhouse gas emissions bounced back sharply in 2021
By Brad Plumer
America’s greenhouse gas emissions from energy and industry rose 6.2% in 2021 as the economy began recovering from pandemic lows and the nation’s coal plants roared back to life, according to a preliminary estimate being published Monday by the Rhodium Group.
The rebound was not a total surprise: The nation’s emissions had plummeted more than 10% in 2020, the largest one-year drop on record, after the initial coronavirus outbreak triggered widespread lockdowns and energy use plunged to its lowest level in decades. As restrictions eased and economic activity picked back up, emissions were expected to bounce back.
“If anything, last year’s rebound in emissions was lower than it could have been because the pandemic is still causing disruptions and the economy isn’t back to normal,” said Kate Larsen, a partner at the Rhodium Group, a research and consulting firm. “Emissions are still well below 2019 levels.”
The uptick in emissions underscored the challenges President Joe Biden faces in his quest to shift the nation away from oil, gas and coal and help avert a drastic rise in global temperatures.
Biden has set a goal of slashing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, which is roughly the pace that scientists say the whole world must follow to keep the Earth from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels and minimize the risk of catastrophic effects. The planet has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius over the past century.
But after last year’s rebound, U.S. emissions are now just 17.4% below 2005 levels, the Rhodium Group estimated. Several recent studies have found that the United States is likely to fall far short of achieving Biden’s climate goals without major new policies to speed up the transition to wind, solar and other clean energy.
Whether Biden can enact these policies is a major question: His Build Back Better Act — which contains $555 billion in spending and tax incentives for renewable power, electric cars and other climate programs — remains in limbo on Capitol Hill. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a crucial swing vote, has so far balked at supporting the legislation, though Democrats are expected to try again this year. Republicans have uniformly opposed the bill.
Recent analysis led by researchers at Princeton University found that the bill, if passed in its current form, could get the United States most of the way to its climate goal, by tripling or quadrupling the pace of wind and solar power installations, accelerating electric vehicle sales and spurring utilities to retire more coal plants over the next decade.
For now, however, the United States remains deeply dependent on fossil fuels to power its economy.
Transportation, the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gases, saw a 10% increase in emissions in 2021 after a 15% decline in 2020, the Rhodium Group estimated. Much of that rebound was driven by a rise in diesel-fueled trucks carrying goods to consumers as e-commerce surged, with freight traffic climbing above pre-pandemic levels last year.
Passenger travel in cars and airplanes has been slower to recover, as the uncertainty around new variants disrupted travel plans and kept many people at home. Gasoline consumption did not return to 2019 levels until October, while demand for jet fuel remains well below pre-pandemic levels.
There are signs that vehicles are starting to shift. Sales of electric cars, a key technology for cutting emissions, increased to record highs in 2021, accounting for 5% of all new car sales in the third quarter, according to Atlas Public Policy, a research firm. But electric cars are not yet widespread enough to make a major dent in emissions, and few trucks have been electrified to date.
Coal, the most polluting of all fossil fuels, also made a big comeback last year, with emissions from coal-fired power plants rising 17% in 2021 after declining 19% in 2020. While America is still burning far less coal than it was a decade ago, the fuel is far from dead.
In the years before the pandemic hit, America’s electric utilities had been retiring hundreds of coal plants, replacing them with cheaper and cleaner natural gas, wind and solar power. Then, in 2020, electricity use sagged nationwide and many utilities ran their remaining coal plants far less often, since it was often the most expensive fuel.
But that dynamic reversed last year. As natural gas prices nearly doubled in 2021, driven in part by a cold winter and rising exports, many utilities switched back to running their coal plants more often. (On average, burning coal for electricity produces twice as much carbon dioxide as burning natural gas, though natural gas use also creates plenty of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.)
“It really illustrates how much we’ve depended on cheap natural gas prices to keep coal in decline,” Larsen said. “Overall, we still expect coal to decline further in the years ahead, but unless there are new policies put in place to clean up the power sector, the coal industry could see a bit of a lifeline if there are big swings in the gas market.”
A recent report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected that coal emissions would likely dip again next year if natural gas prices stabilize. Electric utilities have already announced plans to retire at least 28% of their remaining coal plants by 2035, the agency said. And power companies installed new wind turbines and solar panels at a record pace over the past two years.
Still, meeting Biden’s climate goals will be daunting. To do so, the Rhodium Group has estimated that the United States would need to cut emissions roughly 5% each year between now and 2030, which is a much faster pace than the country was achieving before the pandemic.