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U.S. could see biggest drop in energy-related emissions in decades

The coronavirus pandemic’s sweeping disruptions to travel, business and the oil industry could lead to energy-related carbon emissions dropping by 11% this year, the federal government said in an analysis released Wednesday.

That would be the biggest such decline since at least 1949, the Energy Information Administration said, not just in terms of percentage points but also in the actual amount of reduced emissions.

“People aren’t going out, they’re not driving. My car’s been sitting in the driveway,” EIA expert Perry Lindstrom said in an interview. “The Great Recession a few years back, we had the economic impact, but we didn’t have this huge drop in vehicle miles traveled.”

The forecast is helped along by fact that energy-related emissions were already trending downward in 2020 thanks to a mild winter and the decline of the U.S. coal industry, Lindstrom said.

Still, he cautioned that there is a “huge degree of uncertainty” in the forecast, as a lot will depend on how long the pandemic keeps people out of workplaces and off the roads.

The EIA’s report comes as other recent analyses have shown significant declines in carbon emissions are already happening worldwide. But experts say the numbers don’t suggest the pandemic will simply fix climate change, especially given that emissions are likely to rise again as states and countries reopen their economies.

An April report from the International Energy Agency said global carbon emissions in 2020 are now expected to be almost 8% lower than last year, a result of “stunning declines” in energy demand. The drop would be six times larger than the decline in emissions seen after the 2008 financial crisis, the IEA said.

But while having fewer cars on the roads and planes in the air might give the planet a bit of a breather, humans have not simply stopped polluting altogether.

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“Although global emissions are small, they are still continuing – just at a slower rate,” a group of climate researchers wrote in a recent analysis for the United Kingdom-based climate website Carbon Brief. “Additional CO2 [carbon dioxide] is still accumulating in the atmosphere.”

“An analogy is filling a bath from a tap,” the researchers wrote. “If the tap represents CO2 emissions, and the water level in the bath is CO2 concentrations, while we have slightly turned the tap down temporarily, water is still flowing into the bath and so the level is still rising. To slow climate change, the tap needs to be turned right down – and permanently.”

One glaring example of how the climate problem persists even during the pandemic: last month tied with April 2016 as the warmest April on record despite drops in emissions, according to an update Tuesday from the World Meteorological Organization.

The EIA said in Wednesday’s report that energy-related carbon emissions in the U.S. could increase by 5% in 2021 as businesses reopen and industries gear back up, offsetting about half of the expected decline for this year.

Some of that uptick could come from an increase in coal use.

Electric utilities have shunned coal in recent years in favor of cheaper, plentiful natural gas. But the reason natural gas has been so cheap is because it’s often pulled up as a byproduct of oil production.

Now, with oil prices in the tank and oil production already falling, prices for natural gas could rise, making the fuel a less attractive alternative.

“So coal will make a little comeback in terms of electricity generation based on our current thinking,” Lindstrom said.

At the moment, the EIA expects coal consumption to grow by about 10% in 2021 as the economy recovers and businesses use more electricity.

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