Carbon score card: Emissions are down but big tasks ahead for Biden

Michel Euler/AP
John Kerry, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, gestures as he speaks to the media after a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace in Paris, March 10, 2021. Mr. Kerry traveled to Paris to relaunch transatlantic cooperation with European officials in the wake of President Joe Biden's decision to rejoin the global effort to curb climate change.

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While managing the pandemic has been the key priority for many governments in the past year, 2020 was also a year that saw the costliest weather and climate disasters across the United States in history. It was also one of the hottest years on record. 

“We can no longer delay or do the bare minimum to address climate change,” said President Joe Biden on Feb. 19.

Why We Wrote This

For four years, America’s president didn’t rank climate change as a priority. So does that mean progress on clean energy stalled? Actually no. But experts say the U.S. does need to play catch-up.

As his administration pledges urgent action on greenhouse gas emissions, how is the U.S. faring? It’s not at a standstill despite four years of White House neglect of the issue. Local governments along with businesses and individuals have been adopting renewable energy, electric vehicles, and more-efficient buildings. Carbon dioxide emissions in the electric power sector declined by 17% from 2016 to 2019. 

Yet there is still a long way to go to reach the goal of a decarbonized economy by 2050. The big question is whether President Biden can succeed in speeding up the clean energy transition with his infrastructure plan, says Steven J. Davis, an Earth system scientist at the University of California, Irvine. “It could really influence the carbon intensity of our economy for a generation,” he says. 

While managing the pandemic has been the key priority for many governments in the past year, 2020 was also a year that saw the costliest weather and climate disasters across the United States in history. It was also one of the hottest years on record. 

“We can no longer delay or do the bare minimum to address climate change,” said President Joe Biden on Feb. 19, in a not-so-veiled criticism of predecessor Donald Trump.

President Biden’s remarks came as the U.S. officially rejoined the Paris Agreement, which the prior administration had pulled out of. He said, “This is a global existential crisis, and all of us will suffer if we fail.”

Why We Wrote This

For four years, America’s president didn’t rank climate change as a priority. So does that mean progress on clean energy stalled? Actually no. But experts say the U.S. does need to play catch-up.

As the Biden administration pledges urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, how is the U.S. actually faring? The nation isn’t at the standstill that many might expect. Even during the past four years, state and local governments along with businesses and individuals have been taking actions and making investments on everything from renewable energy to electric vehicles and more-efficient buildings.

One indicator: U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide in the electric power sector declined by 17% from 2016 to 2019. 

Yet there is still a long way to go to hit the Paris Agreement objective of a largely decarbonized economy by 2050. 

The big question is whether President Biden can speed up the clean energy transition with his infrastructure plan, which promises to address climate concerns, says Steven J. Davis, an Earth system scientist at the University of California, Irvine.

“That’s really where it’s going to determine what direction we go,” says Dr. Davis. “And it stands to reason that it could really influence the carbon intensity of our economy for a generation. We can either use that wisely to get us on track with some of the renewables and electric vehicles, or we can squander the opportunity and more or less stay where we are, and have the long slog ahead of us.” 

 

SOURCE:

Global Carbon Atlas

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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

As countries around the world think about economic recovery plans to emerge from the pandemic, two opposite things are happening, says Pierre Noël, a global research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. In more developed countries, some governments are taking the opportunity to invest in building greener infrastructure. For example, Mr. Biden’s infrastructure plan is likely to accelerate the deployment of electric vehicle charging stations. 

“But on the other hand, in many countries, especially in the developing world, you have this extreme sense of urgency to bring the economy back on track, and the environment takes a backseat,” says Dr. Noël.  

SOURCE:

U.S. Energy Information Administration

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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

At the same time, energy markets are being transformed, amid changes that are most visible in advanced nations like the U.S., with its three-year decline of 17% in CO2 emissions prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

Falling costs for solar and wind power have spurred the rise of non-carbon and renewable sources, which constituted a record high of 38% of electricity generation in 2019.

In parallel, costs for natural gas, as a cleaner alternative to coal, have also declined in a trend that predates the Trump administration.

“The economics is still very much favorable to gas [in the United States], and the collapse in the cost of renewables is continuing unabated,” says Dr. Noël.

SOURCE:

Our World in Data based on Global Carbon Project, BP, Maddison, UNWPP; U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Globally, estimated emissions saw a record drop in 2020 as people were forced to stay indoors and travel was restricted. But experts expect this to be temporary and that emissions will rise again as the economy recovers.

For both advanced and developing nations, the challenge is how to maintain economic progress while increasingly leaving fossil fuels behind. 

Market forces alone will not be enough, experts say, to spur the more meaningful changes that are urgently needed to achieve zero-emission goals by 2050. 

“The part of the energy economy where green is becoming cheap is actually restricted to [electric] power, and even in the power sector, it is not universal,” says Dr. Noël. “Things are changing primarily because of market forces … but this will only take you so far, and much more is needed.”

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