Carpe Diem

Energy fact of the day: US CO2 emissions per capita in 2012 were the lowest since 1964


It’s been widely reported here and elsewhere that CO2 emissions in the US have been falling pretty dramatically over the last five years, thanks in large part to the substitution of natural gas for coal to generate electricity in the US. Natural gas is much more environmentally friendly than coal, which emits about twice as much CO2 as gas when used for electricity generation. Last year, CO2 emissions in the US fell to an 18-year low, the lowest level since 1994, and C02 emissions from coal fell to a 26-year low, the lowest since 1986. Further, as the WSJ reported this week (“Rise in U.S. Gas Production Fuels Unexpected Plunge in Emissions“) the US now leads the world in reducing CO2 emissions thanks to the shale revolution. At the same time that America is using less coal and more shale gas and reducing C02 emissions, Europe and Asia are becoming more coal-dependent for electricity generation, and increasing C02 emissions.

Compared to the last time that CO2 emissions were at 2012′s levels — back in 1994 — real GDP in 2012 was 55% higher and the US population was 17.5% larger, making the drop in greenhouse gas emissions to an 18-year low in 2012 even more impressive. Adjusted for the population, CO2 emissions per capita last year were the lowest since 1964, almost 50 years ago (see chart above, data here and here). According to Department of Energy forecasts, the decline in per capita CO2 emissions is expected to continue so consistently that within about 20 years, greenhouse gas emissions per person in the US will be below the level in 1949!

As we observe Earth Day on April 22, we should celebrate the fact that we have “rolled back the carbon clock” by almost 50 years on a per capita basis in the US, and CO2 emissions per capita are expected to fall within the next 20 years to the lowest level in almost a century. Moreover, we should celebrate the fact that the US now leads the world in reducing CO2 emissions. And it’s important to recognize that the significant reduction in CO2 emissions over the last five years in the US was not the result of any intentional or planned energy policy, and it didn’t happen because of EPA restrictions on C02 emissions, or because of carbon taxes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, it was the totally unexpected and unplanned outcome of the shale revolution, which resulted from advances in drilling technologies developed in the private sector that allowed “petropreneurs” to access previously inaccessible oceans of shale gas trapped in shale rock miles below the Earth’s surface.

As John Hanger reported recently on America’s sharp reduction in C02 emissions since 2007:

Uncle Sam is showing the world that carbon emissions can be cut sharply and cheaply. It is a true American triumph that energy related carbon emissions will be down in 2012 another 4% from 2011 levels and will be back to approximately 1995 levels. The carbon clock has rolled back 17 years, and 2012 emissions will be even less than in the near-depression year of 2009.

Cleaner and cheaper energy is a real American triumph and my Top Energy Fact of 2012!

21 thoughts on “Energy fact of the day: US CO2 emissions per capita in 2012 were the lowest since 1964

  1. A quick perusal of your data makes me not so certain of your “fact for the day”. The absolute number seem to indicate we are using just about the same natural resources if not more over the decades. Could we attribute this per capita decline to an increasing population? …or (if you noticed in the 1970′s — when car engines were changed to meet fuel efficiency and exhaust regulations) there is less exhaust going out of the tailpipe in today’s cars since pre-1970 models (more of the exhaust gets recycled back into the engine)? …or could a recession explain some of the decline (we had 3 in the ’70′s and then we haven’t fully recovered from the present one)? …the smokestacks of industry are cleaner than the used to be? …I don’t know if a decline in manufacturing would explain anything (I don’t know in absolute numbers whether we have less manufacturing plants)? I think your conclustion needs a little more analysis.

  2. atmospheric methane hit a new record high of 1813 parts per billion (ppb) in 2011, which was 259% of the pre-industrial level…

    Main reason? Shale gas

    • Can you cite a study? Does the methane increase correlate with increase in shale gas extraction?

      Just because methane is up doesn’t necessarily mean it’s from shale gas production. There are other possible sources. Increase in global population of cud-chewing livestock, for instance.

      • measuring something that may be considered a harmful pollutant of which there is a maximum amount that the environment can assimilate before potential harm results – by per capita is lame.

        It’s like measuring budget expenditures as a percent of GDP when you are already in deficit.

          • re: considering Co2 as a pollutant …

            perhaps it’s is lame but it’s not the only pollutant that is questioned in this way.

            it’s like measuring something like dioxin or plutonium in “per capita”.

            whether or not C02 is a “pollutant” reflects a misunderstanding about what things might be harmful or not in what concentrations.

            You can say that it’s ridiculous to consider nitrogen or salt as a pollutant but if they are in concentrations that threaten your life – what would you call them instead?

          • I prefer a definition of pollutant that doesn’t encompass everything. That pretty much vitiates the meaning of the term.

          • well.. here’s the question:

            is a pollutant – something that is benign in one concentration and deadly in a higher concentration?

          • let me give an example. TMDL – google it. the idea is that a river can accommodate certain concentrations of various things but if they exceed concentrations – they harm the river.

            Most NDPES permits are based on this concept.

  3. the goal is not the “analysis” – the goal is to fit the the “free-market”, “fossil-fuel” narrative to the facts.

  4. I am puzzled by all the skepticism, but unlike the skeptics will no read minds and suggest motivations for why they say what they say.

    Specifically, dividing emissions by population is not a trick, and it is in fact only a fraction of the normalization that should have been done — it should have also been divided by GDP. You combust fossil fuels not because of some atavostoc form of pyromania, but because you have goods and services to produce for men and women.
    Incidentally, population has been growing more or less steadily over the entire period shown (and if anything is expected to grow more slowly into the future), so it would not be a useful trick for biasing the numbers up and then down. Second, the recession/growth induced effects in CO2 emissions can be seen both in the 1970′s and 1980′s recessions (both down and then up); since we have recovered more than all the output lost in the 2007-2009 recession (not the employment) should not we have seen the sharp upswings in emissions. The mix of our economy is another way in which we can manage to reduce emissions, is not a gimmick, and any way, our manufacturing output is not down over this period, but up.

    Please compare the same data tho that for the European Union, whose members did commit and foreswore to achieve reductions by fiat. Let’s see how well they are doing.

    I see that we will all have to become more familiar with the faux-crisis that leaky gas pipelines are soon to become, but this NASA paper from 2012 suggests there is none:

    • “unlike the skeptics will no read minds and suggest motivations for why they say what they say.”

      How about you avoid fallacy altogether and then, maybe, I’d read the rest of your post.

    • Well, I’m observing it, Greg. I’m running all my cars, cranking up the air conditioning and turning on all the lights inside and out so that when aliens are look at earth from space, they’ll think my house is a supernova.

  5. I think we should be looking very closely at methane emissions from natural gas production, as methane is a more potent (though short-lived) greenhouse gas than CO2.

    But I suspect (in the US) that the leaks can be economically fixed. Not sure if that could happen in Russia.

    This is another pro-environmental reason to allow US natural gas exports. If natgas is to be produced for global use, it should be produced in the US, where we have the best chance of watching over it.

  6. To the author:

    The key reason for the reduction in our per capita C02 emissions is that we have simply sent a huge portion of our manufacturing over to China.

    And because we do not put restrictions on their manufacturing emissions of products that end up in our homes we have not really done the world much of a favor.

    I’m not saying that the conversion to natural gas is not a good thing, just saying that we should not break our arms patting ourselves on the back.

    Europe is not the proper comparison, we should compare to China, and recognize that we are a key driver of China’s pollution.

  7. Per capita emissions is not as useful a metric as total emissions on the global scale. It doesn’t matter what the average per person is if we exceed on a total basis an amount that produces catastrophic changes in the climate. Natural gas is certainly better than coal and may be helping to reduce emissions, but if the total emissions globally continue to increase then population and consumption also need to be reduced. Fugitive methane emissions and other more potent climate changing sources like nitrogen fertilizers need to be reduced.

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