U.S. New World Leader in Reducing CO2 Emissions

The U.S. has been criticized for not ratifying the Kyoto Treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Yet according to the latest International Energy Agency (IEA) report CO2 emissions in the United States in 2011 fell by 92 Mt, or 1.7% … US emissions have now fallen by 430 Mt (7.7%) since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions.

One of the biggest reasons for the relative the drop is the widespread substitution of cleaner natural gas for coal and oil. I have written before about the vast reserves of American natural gas made available by new technologies, which is the biggest single positive energy development in my lifetime. The mild winter helped this year, but previous winters were cold. The economic downturn meant less consumption, but the downturn hit our European friends harder, and their emissions increased, evidently w/o regard for their signing of the protocols.

Actually the facts are a little worse than that and demonstrate the unexpected results of rules aimed at making things greener. Some of our European friends are resisting the use of natural gas widely available on the old continent because of the same fracking techniques that are revolutionizing energy in the Americas. With gas unavailable at the very low prices we are currently enjoying in America, when harder economic times come, people turn to coal, which is still cheaper.

Germany is also trying to phase out nuclear energy and shuttered eight of its 17 reactors after the Japanese disaster in 2011. These plants had total 12.3 gigawatts (GW) of capacity. Coal will step into this breach too. How much? To put this in perspective, the increased average annual emissions are the equivalent of 2.8 million U.S. cars. German use of coal will rise 13.5% in 2012 . Ironically, carbon “caps” have served as a floor rather than a ceiling. As the recession slowed energy demand, German industries and utilities were free to increase their use of dirtier fuels essentially to compensate for the decline.

Meanwhile rising energy costs are biting German consumers. These are all self-inflicted wounds and there are fears that electricity could become a luxury in Germany. But I digress.

The bottom line is that detailed rules never can anticipate all the circumstances that could make them obsolete and even counterproductive. I doubt anybody thought that measures meant to decrease carbon use could end up encouraging its use while driving up energy prices. Meanwhile who would have suspected that the U.S. would be the country that most reduced its CO2 emissions despite (because of?) its failure to sign onto Kyoto?