Rising U.S. Emissions Make Paris Promises Elusive

The EPA's data shows another rise in greenhouse gas emissions in 2014, and the methane mystery might drive those numbers further in the wrong direction.

EPA chief Gina McCarthy announced the latest U.S. emissions numbers this week
EPA chief Gina McCarthy said she was "disappointed" that data showed U.S. emissions rose in 2014. Credit: Reuters

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New data this week showing how little progress the United States has made in cutting greenhouse gas emissions since President Obama took office is the latest evidence to undercut the pledges the United States made in negotiating the Paris climate treaty.

The Clean Power Plan’s crackdown on coal-fired power plants is on hold, thanks to the Supreme Court. Methane emissions are turning out to be higher than previously thought, as natural gas booms. People are buying more gas-guzzling cars, thanks to low prices at the pump.

And now, in a draft of its annual greenhouse gas emissions tally, the EPA reported that emissions in the year 2014 climbed almost 1 percent from 2013 to 2014. That brought emissions back above the level of Obama’s first year in office, 2009.

In negotiating the Paris treaty, signed in December, the U.S. pledged to cut emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025, below the level of 2005.

The new data shows that from 2005 to 2014 emissions went down just 7.5 percent, leaving most of those promised reductions off in the distance, like a hazy mirage.

Most of that decline is due to the nosedive in emissions that came with the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009.

In a quarter-century, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have marched mostly in the wrong direction.

“Total U.S. emissions have increased by 7.7 percent from 1990 to 2014,” the report stated. “Since 1990, U.S. emissions have increased at an average annual rate of 0.3 percent.”

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions chart by Environmental Protection Agency

The administration, environmentalists and even some in the industry have said they expect continuing reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, as market forces and other regulations push coal aside. And that is even with the Supreme Court’s stay of the Clean Power Plan.

“Was I disappointed about it? Sure,” said Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator, in a speech in Houston on Tuesday. “But, does it slow down this country’s transition to a low carbon future? Absolutely not.”

The biggest red flag at the moment might not involve CO2 pollution from power plants. Emissions of carbon dioxide from electricity generation barely grew at all from 2013 to 2014, the data show.

An even more intractable problem is methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas in the short term. It’s increasingly clear that the administration is not sure how much we are emitting.

The EPA’s new draft inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, McCarthy noted in her speech, “shows that methane emissions from existing sources in the oil and gas sector are substantially higher than we previously understood.”

“At 9.3 million metric tons, revised estimates of 2013 emissions are 27 percent higher than the previous tally,” wrote David Lyon on the Energy Exchange blog of the Environmental Defense Fund, which tracks the methane issue closely.

Confronted with new information, the EPA decided to postpone publishing a methane number for 2014 while it takes comment from industry, environmentalists and other experts on the latest draft.

“The big jump makes it crystal clear that there can be no more excuses for ignoring this huge challengenot only controlling methane emissions from future sources, as proposed new EPA rules will do, but also controlling emissions from the tens of thousands of leaking facilities already operating now,” Lyon said.

The carbon dioxide and the methane problems are linked, because cheap and abundant gas is one factor pushing dirtier coal out of the market.

In April 2015, natural gas-fired electricity generation surpassed that of coal-fired generation on a monthly basis for the first time in history, and it did so again in each of the months from July through at least October. The government estimates that 2015 power sector coal consumption was at the lowest level since 1988.

Even if greenhouse gases from power plants and the oil and gas complex are strictly regulated, there are doubts about the progress in other sectors, like transportation.

A big piece of the puzzle is how much gasoline Americans will pump into their cars.

After declining for a few years since the peak in 2007, gasoline use has been climbing again, the Energy Information Administration reported a few days ago.

The trend has been evident for some time. In a November report on emissions from the energy sectorthe source of most greenhouse gases, the EIA said that lower fuel prices and economic growth led to higher gasoline consumption in 2014 than in 2013. “The growth in energy consumption more than offset improvements in the fuel economy of the vehicle fleet,” it said.

In 2015, with gasoline prices plummeting, and with more people employed, sales of light trucks exceeded sales of regular cars by the greatest margin ever. That, the government said, can spell trouble for the overall fuel efficiency of the vehicle fleet, even though efficiency of both cars and trucks is due to increase.