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Climate Change

U.S. Sees Greatest Reduction in CO2 Emissions

ATLANTA, Georgia, Jun 30 2012 (IPS) - According to a recent report by the International Energy Agency, the U.S. has seen the greatest reduction in carbon dioxide pollution within the past six years in comparison to any other country, even as global carbon dioxide pollution has reached record highs.

“CO2 emissions in the United States in 2011 fell by 92 Mt (million tonnes), or 1.7%, primarily due to ongoing switching from coal to natural gas in power generation and an exceptionally mild winter, which reduced the demand for space heating,” the IEA writes on its website.

“US emissions have now fallen by 430 Mt (7.7%) since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions. This development has arisen from lower oil use in the transport sector (linked to efficiency improvements, higher oil prices and the economic downturn which has cut vehicle miles travelled) and a substantial shift from coal to gas in the power sector,” the IEA states.

It is enough to give people some hope that perhaps humanity will not continue to send the environment into a doomsday scenario, Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said.

“Obviously, for years, we found ourselves in the U.S. being the largest contributor to global warming, and seemingly ever-increasing emissions. The biggest part of the problem was continuing to get worse,” Nilles told IPS.

“Finally, we’re no longer in situation of doing nothing. We’ve achieved greater reductions than any other country over the last eight years. We’re finally getting serious about leadership. It’s a mix of the Obama Administration and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) rules, and community after community, state after state doing their part,” Nilles said.

The U.S. Congress gets less credit from environmentalists for taking action on pollution, however.

Carbon dioxide emissions from the average U.S. resident are now at the same levels that they were in 1964, according to an analysis by the Vancouver Observer newspaper. Yet, that does not mean overall U.S. carbon dioxide pollution is at 1964 levels. The average per-person pollution is lower, in part, because the U.S. population has grown since 1964, Nilles said.

As IPS has previously reported over the last few years, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign has seen a number of great successes in shutting down existing coal plants and preventing the opening of proposed new coal plants. But is it too early to be seeing results?

“Our work on coal began a decade ago,” Nilles said. “We spent the bulk of the first six to eight years stopping new coal plants. We stopped about 90 percent.”

Sierra Club claims that they have stopped 169 out of about 200 new coal plants that had been proposed. Twenty-two plants did get built, most of those in the early days before the national campaign, Nilles said. And not a single new coal plant has broken ground in the U.S. since October 2008, with the exception of one in Mississippi that is the subject of dispute.

Around the end of 2009, Beyond Coal began to shift its focus to the closure of existing plants. Some 112 existing plants have already been announced for retirement, representing about 14 percent of the total number.

Jamie Henn, communications director for, said that one of the reasons the industry has moved away from coal is because of the advent of relatively inexpensive natural gas.

However, Henn warns that replacing coal with natural gas is unlikely to help with the overall issue of pollution of greenhouse gases in the U.S.

“Part of the crux of the challenge is that natural gas can reduce emissions in the short term, but both the carbon logic and economic logic is flawed. There are methane leaks associated with the production and storage of natural gas,” Henn said.

According to Henn, in terms of environmental damage, every particle of methane is 32 times as bad as a particle of carbon dioxide, although it breaks down sooner and does not stay in the environment for as long.

“It’s worse than coal because methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas. That’s one concern, maybe this drop is slight, but it isn’t going to continue downward (when considering CO2 equivalents like methane). Those gains will plateau,” Henn said.

The advocates also agreed that one of the reasons that carbon dioxide pollution has fallen in the U.S. in recent years is because of the slowing of the economy. The economic downturn, ironically, has been a good thing for the environment.

“If industrial output skyrockets again, or people are buying SUVs (sports utility vehicles) because they’re flush with cash,” the downward trend in U.S. carbon dioxide pollution will not continue, Henn said.

Advocates also credit fuel efficiency, overall conservation efforts, and the doubling of the use of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power in the U.S. in recent years for the recent reductions.

But there is much more to be done: more solar, more wind, less coal, less natural gas, more energy efficiency, more fuel efficiency, more conservation. In order to continue the current trend to reach President Barack Obama’s goal, as set in the Copenhagen Accord, of a 17 percent reduction by 2020, more U.S. households will have to look at their own consumption patterns.

“The average European is using 50 percent less carbon (than the average U.S. resident). They don’t live in suburbs and drive SUVs, put simply. They tend to have smaller homes,” Henn said, adding that they engage in, “more going out, less buying stuff.”
It may have seemed futile before, as in what is the point of making personal sacrifices if the problem is only going to get worse? One effect of the recent IEA findings is to show that all of the various actions to reduce pollution in the U.S. are making an impact on the bottom line. This could provide the basis for encouragement to do more.

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