New EPA Report: US Emissions Down, Still a Need to Act on Climate Change

Attacks on climate change regulations, thawing permafrost in National Parks, and attempts to defund climate research. Climate change has had some bad news this month. There’s at least one (sort of) bright spot, though: the state of US greenhouse gas emissions. Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its annual draft report on emissions. It shows that they decreased 6 percent in 2009 compared to 2008.

The News

The majority of greenhouse gas emissions came from electricity generation and transportation. Combined, those two sectors accounted for about 70 percent of all manmade emissions in the US. In the case of transportation, nearly 54 percent of that is from personal vehicle use. So if you think hopping on your bike or living closer to work won’t make a difference, think again.

The reduction puts 2009 on par with 1995 levels. It’s still a far cry from the 8 percent below 1990 levels the European Union is aiming for by 2012. In fact, the US’s 2009 emissions are still 7.4 percent above 1990 levels. Clearly there’s a long way to go towards making meaningful cuts.

There are two main reasons greenhouse gas emissions decreased. No, it wasn’t people biking to work (yet). One is the economic downturn. That’s what makes this “sort of” good news.

Declining coal use also helped reduce emissions

On a better note, the other main cause for the decrease in emissions is a decrease in coal use and a concurrent increase in using natural gas to generate electricity. The changing fortunes of coal and natural gas were due to changing prices, with costs of coal rising and natural gas decreasing. If ever there was proof that one way to fight climate change is ending subsidies for coal, this is it.

Natural gas isn’t a perfect solution. It releases methane when burned, which is a more potent warming agent than carbon dioxide. But even the marked increase in natural gas use and production of methane was dwarfed by the decrease in carbon dioxide from burning less coal.

Who Benefits?

This particular bit of news could give climate hawks in Congress cause to rejoice. While touting the benefits of an economic downturn might not make the case for climate change legislation, showing that reducing emissions can come through simple intermediate steps could bolster the cause for letting the EPA do its job or introducing climate legislation.

The EPA report is also a teachable moment for climate scientists. Despite a reduction in emissions, 2009 still stands as the warmest or second warmest years on record. Comparing these two issues perfectly illustrates that the effects of manmade greenhouse gases are cumulative.

In other words, even if all greenhouse emissions stopped tomorrow, there would still be climate change effects in the pipeline. And besides, according to a new paper in Nature, we’re already feeling the effects of climate change in North America. That’s all the more reason to start reducing emissions now.

Finally, conservationists can use the new report to highlight the benefits of letting forests be. Over the past 20 years, the US has seen forested land growing. While this has been coupled with massive deforestation abroad, looking at the effects of reforestation in the US shows natural processes can play a role in reducing the causes of climate change.

In 2009 forests in the US sequestered 1015 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s the equivalent of Canada and England’s total emissions combined. It shows that conservation is a key to combating climate change.

For next 30 days, you can add your comments on the EPA’s findings on greenhouse gases and climate change. The final report will ultimately be submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the same group that organizes the annual climate change conferences. So go add your two cents.

Photo credit: Frank Wuestefeld and eutrophication&hypoxia