U.S. Carbon Emissions From Fossil Fuels Rose in 2013 as Coal Use Ticked Up

The 2 percent rise in energy-related CO2 emissions marks a shift from five years of declining emissions amid the economic recession.

West Virginia coal plant/Credit: John E. Amos

When all the data is in, it looks like carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels will have gone up 2 percent in 2013 from the previous year, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said on Monday.

The main reason, it said, is an uptick in the use of coal for electric power. But it's also a sign of growing economic activity in general.

Ever since the deep recession began in 2008, U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide had been going down. CO2 is the principal greenhouse gas that's causing climate change. About 40 percent of emissions from the energy sector come from combustion of coal in power plants. The Obama has proposed rules to control these emissions from newly built plants, and is also drafting rules to govern existing power plants.

In a brief analysis, the DOE's statistical arm said it expected emissions from coal to continue rising from 2013 to 2014, and emissions from gas to fall.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook, January 2014

"Coal has regained some market share from natural gas since a low in April 2013," the Energy Information Administration said. "However the impact on overall emissions trends remains fairly small."

The agency said emissions are currently running at about 10 percent less than in 2005, putting the nation almost two-thirds of the way to its goal of cutting them 17 percent by 2020, with much steeper reductions promised even later.

The cuts in emissions have many causes aside from the recession and the substitution of natural gas for coal at a time when gas was unusually inexpensive. During the business downturn many companies continued to invest in energy efficiency to save money. More fuel-efficient cars, including hybrid and electric models, have been increasingly popular, and people have been driving less.

Carbon-free renewables like wind and solar power have been booming.

The energy forecasts don't factor in changes in policy that might help get emissions back on a downward track, such as tighter rules on smokestack emissions at power plants or the extension of tax breaks for renewables, including a subsidy for wind that expired at the end of 2013. Congress also debated energy-efficiency legislation last year, but it was never passed. This latest forecast shows how important policy changes are, if the nation is to get back on the track toward meeting the Obama administration's promises on tackling climate change.

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