U.S. carbon dioxide emissions rose an estimated 3.4 percent in 2018, according to new research — a jarring increase that comes as scientists say the world needs to be aggressively cutting its emissions to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change.
The findings, published Tuesday by the independent economic research firm Rhodium Group, mean that the United States now has a diminishing chance of meeting its pledge under the 2015 Paris climate agreement to dramatically reduce its emissions by 2025.
The findings also underscore how the world’s second-largest emitter, once a global leader in pushing for climate action, has all but abandoned efforts to mitigate the effects of a warming world. President Donald Trump has said he plans to officially withdraw the nation from the Paris climate agreement in 2020 and in the meantime has rolled back Obama-era regulations aimed at reducing the country’s carbon emissions.
“We have lost momentum. There’s no question,” Rob Jackson, a Stanford University professor who studies emissions trends, said of both U.S. and global efforts to steer the world toward a more sustainable future.
The sharp emissions rise was fueled primarily by a booming economy, researchers found. But the increase, which could prove to be the second-largest in the past 20 years, probably would not have been as stark without Trump administration rollbacks, said Trevor Houser, a partner at Rhodium.
Emissions from electric power generation rose 1.9 percent in 2018, the analysis found, driven chiefly by more demand for electricity, which was largely satisfied by more burning of natural gas. This fuel emits less greenhouse gas than coal when burned but is still a major contributor overall.
At the same time, emissions from the transportation sector rose 1 percent thanks to more airline travel and greater on-road shipping. Industrial emissions from factories and other major facilities also rose significantly in 2018, the analysis found.
The figures, based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and other sources, remain an estimate because some data from last year is not finalized. But the trend line is consistent with a recent estimate from a group of academics associated with the Global Carbon Project, which found U.S. emissions likely to rise 2.5 percent in 2018.
Rising emissions are not just a U.S. problem. Global emissions also reached a record high in 2018, and the increase in the U.S. goes hand in hand with rising emissions in other countries, said Michael Mehling, deputy director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“It’s not an isolated phenomenon,” Mehling said, adding that the trend makes it difficult to solely blame the Trump administration’s deregulatory push and its dismissal of climate action for the change. “Such political developments, including the rollback of domestic climate policies in the U.S., tend to have a considerable lead time before you can actually see their reflection in physical emission trends.”
The latest growth makes it increasingly unlikely that the United States will achieve a pledge made by the Obama administration in the run-up to the Paris climate agreement, that the country would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2025.
A large part of President Barack Obama’s plan for meeting that goal turned on key climate policies, including new regulations for vehicle fuel efficiency and power plants. These policies alone were not enough — the U.S. has never been on target to fulfill its Paris promises. But the Trump administration has moved to reverse or weaken them.
U.S. emissions have declined somewhat since 2005 because of technological changes, such as the dwindling of coal-fired power generation in the face of surging natural gas and the growth of renewable energy. In a major international climate change meeting in Poland last month, the Trump administration hailed a 14 percent decline in emissions from 2005 levels.
But that’s barely half of what the Obama administration was promising by 2025. And the 14 percent figure has shrunk based on the latest findings. The result is that any chance of hitting the original Obama goal has diminished, said the Rhodium Group’s Houser.