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US greenhouse gas emissions roared back in 2021, adding another hurdle to climate targets

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US greenhouse gas emissions rebounded last year, as the nation attempted a faltering return to a sort of normalcy amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Emissions increased by 6.2 per cent from 2020, largely due to a jump in coal-fired power generation, which increased 17 per cent from the previous year, and more diesel-powered, freight trucks hitting the roads packed with consumer purchases.

And while emissions remained 5 per cent below levels before the pandemic took hold, the uptick presents another hurdle to reaching short-term US climate targets. President Joe Biden has pledged to cut domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in half by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, in a bid to steer the nation onto a path to net-zero by mid-century.

But progress in reducing US emissions was reversed, moving from 22.2 per cent below 2005 levels in 2020 to only 17.4 per cent in 2021, according to analysis published on Monday by independent research institute Rhodium Group.

The biggest bounce back came from the transportation sector, the US’ largest source of GHG emissions overall. This reflected high demand for freight transportation of consumer products and a modest recovery of passenger travel, Rhodium noted.

Transport had experienced the largest decline in GHG emissions in 2020, dropping more than 15 per cent below 2019 levels.

Fuel demand never fully returned to 2019 levels but in the first half of 2021, it increased as vaccine programs rolled out. However, new variants and breakthrough cases in late summer saw wavering demand in the last months of the year.

Only road freight rebounded beyond 2019 levels in 2021, with steady demand for consumer goods leading to diesel-powered trucks packing onto America’s highways.

Coal-powered electricity generation drove up US emissions in 2021 after a temporary drop due to the pandemic (Rhodium Group, EIA)
Coal-powered electricity generation drove up US emissions in 2021 after a temporary drop due to the pandemic (Rhodium Group, EIA)

Meanwhile passenger travel never fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels in 2021. While air travel saw a “dramatic” surge of 26 per cent in 2021, it was still 24 per cent below 2019 levels, the analysts found.

However Americans were back behind the wheel in a big way. Demand for gas, which fell 13 per cent in 2020, climbed throughout last year, ending 2021 at 10 per cent above 2020 levels.

The US’ second-largest source of emissions is the electric power sector, and it saw the second-largest increase in GHG emissions from 2020 levels.

Overall, electric power demand only grew slightly in 202 – by 3 per cent from the previous year – however, the more robust growth was due to a sharp rise in coal generation.

It marked the first annual increase in coal generation since 2014, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Coal’s rebound was driven largely by a run-up in natural gas prices in 2021 ,which more than doubled their 2020 rate. The price spikes reflected oil and gas producers drop in production last year due to the pandemic-related oil price collapse and declining demand.

Renewables continued to grow in 2021 and now provide one-fifth of US electricity generation. However, growth was still slower, at about half the rate of 2020.

Separate analysis, published on Monday by the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), found that 2021 was the fifth-hottest year on record globally, and that emissions of carbon dioxide and methane, main drivers of the climate crisis, continue to rise.

The annual analysis also found that the seven hottest years on record were the last seven – by a clear margin.

The latest Rhodium analysis will not be welcome news for the Biden administration which has touted a green recovery from the pandemic via the president’s signature, $1.75 trillion Build Back Better agenda with $555bn earmarked for climate action.

The money was to help ramp up renewable energy like solar panels and wind turbines while providing good-paying jobs for workers to transition away from the fossil fuel industry. The spending package also included plans to electrify the US government fleet and install a wave of electric vehicle charging stations across the nation.

But centrist Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has all but sunk the legislative plan after he told Fox News in December that he could not vote for it. The 50-50 split in the Senate – combined with zero support from Republicans – means all 50 Democrats are needed to pass the spending bill, plus a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris.

Also on Monday, the US leading federal agency for environmental data reported that the country had suffered 20 separate, billion-dollar climate and weather disasters in 202 amid its fourth-hottest year on record.

The annual summary, published by the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), found that extreme events killed at least 688 people in 2021 – the most disaster-related fatalities for the contiguous US in a decade – and left dozens more injured.

To stabilize Earth’s temperature and prevent an ever-worsening spiral of climate disasters, nations have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

This means that GHG emissions, largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels, must be brought down by around 50 per cent by the end of this decade.

According to independent analysis from Climate Action Tracker, despite a host of new pledges to tackle methane, deforestation and coal power at the Cop26 climate summit this past November, global GHG emissions in 2030 will still be around twice as high as needed to keep within the bounds of the 1.5C goal of the Paris Agreement. (The planet has already warmed around 1.1C since pre-industrial times).

With 2030 pledges alone, and absent longer-term targets, global temperature increase is projected to be at 2.4C in 2100.

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