U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions have fallen dramatically in recent years, in large part because the country is making more electricity with natural gas instead of coal.
Energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that is widely believed to contribute to global warming, have fallen 12% between 2005 and 2012 and are at their lowest level since 1994, according to a recent estimate by the Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the U.S. Energy Department.
While other factors, including a sluggish U.S. economy and increasing energy efficiency, have contributed to the decline in carbon emissions from factories, automobiles and power plants, many experts believe the switch from coal to natural gas for electricity generation has been the biggest factor. Carbon-dioxide emissions account for nearly 84% of greenhouse-gas emissions, while methane—the main ingredient in natural gas—makes up 8.8%, according to a recent Environmental Protection Agency report.
Natural gas emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal when used to make electricity, though the calculation fails to take into account the release of methane from natural-gas wells and pipelines, which also contributes to climate change.
The methane issue is important since methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than is carbon, but emissions from natural gas production can be managed. For more background see my January column, "The Promised Land of Fracking," where I point out that rather than cheering the benefits of fracking, activists are instead booing:
Environmental activists, who once hailed natural gas as the bridge fuel to the renewable energy future, have turned with a vengeance against it. Originally, activists who worried about man-made global warming produced by burning fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide favored fracking because burning natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide emitted by coal. However, local and national environmental groups have turned decisively against shale gas based on both not-in-my-backyard concerns and the fear that cheap natural gas undermines the economic case for solar and wind power.
Amusingly, the perpetual self-righteous climate change scolds in Europe, some of whom have banned fracking, are increasing their imports of good old American coal. As the Journal reports:
As the U.S. has reduced its coal consumption, it has increased its coal exports to Europe, which rose 23% in 2012 from a year earlier, according to federal statistics. Gérard Mestrallet, chief executive of French power group GDF Suez SA, says that European utilities imported and burned that coal, raising carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants in Europe. He said as-yet unpublished figures for GDF will show an increase in emissions last year.
Other European utilities used more coal also, likely reversing a recent trend of carbon reductions. European carbon emissions fell 8% between 2005 and 2011, the latest year for which data are available. In February, the German environment ministry said it expected there was a 1.6% rise in greenhouse-gas emissions in Germany last year.
For the sake of the planet (and pocketbooks) here's hoping that other countries will soon join the fracking revolution and reduce the chances of significant problems from global warming.