Global carbon dioxide emissions ended a three-year plateau by rising 2% last year, scientists report. For people concerned about global warming, the most concerning part of the data is that China and developing nations fueled the emissions growth. At first blush, America appears to have little means to address emissions growth in these nations. Nevertheless, if American commits to a global strategy for emissions reductions, the 2017 global emissions jump can be effectively reversed.
Carbon Brief, a website dedicated to fighting climate change through reducing carbon dioxide emissions, documents the reasons for the three-year emissions plateau, as well as the 2017 emissions jump.
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“Much of the slowdown in the growth of global emissions in recent years has been driven by a combination of reductions in the US and China, as well as relatively little growth in emissions in other countries. This changed in 2017, with little-to-no reductions in US emissions and a sizeable increase in Chinese emissions,” Carbon Brief reports.
“India’s emissions increased a bit more slowly in 2017 than in the past few years, while the EU’s emissions have remained relatively flat since 2014 and did not noticeably change in 2017. The growth in emissions from 2016 to 2017 also more than doubled in the rest of the world,” Carbon Brief added.
In short, for all of Europe’s posturing and moralizing about the Paris climate accord, Europe continues to do relatively little to address carbon dioxide emissions, other than to neither increase nor decrease its own emissions. That leaves it up to the United States and China to sufficiently reduce emissions to compensate for growing emissions in developing nations. And China, despite modest reductions from 2015 through 2017, has increased emissions this decade – and this century – more than any other nation in the world.
Even the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) acknowledges that America’s emissions comprise only a small portion of global emissions. According to UCS, the United States accounted for only 15% of global emissions in 2015, and that percentage continues to fall. Declining U.S. emissions simply cannot keep pace with rising global emissions unless there are substantial reductions in the pace of global emissions growth. Chastising America for declining to join an agreement of nations, by nations, and for nations that continue to do little if anything to reduce emissions may satisfy anti-Trump anger, but is ineffectual and meaningless in the effort to reduce global emissions.
U.S. emissions began their decline approximately a decade ago as the fracking revolution unleashed plentiful, low-cost natural gas. High-emitting coal power dominated American electricity production to that point because coal power was much more affordable and dependable than any other power source. Technological advances in fracking and directional drilling, however, have resulted in U.S. natural gas power now being less expensive than coal power. With U.S. natural gas power now as prevalent as coal power, the U.S. economy benefited from lower-priced electricity, the American environment benefited from fewer emissions of traditionally defined pollutants, and the global carbon budget benefited from reduced U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. As the UK environmental website Geographical observes, the United States is one of a small number of nations that has reduced emissions during the past decade even while experiencing growing economic output.
Developing nations, suffering under much lower living standards than the United States, are unwilling to accept higher-priced, unreliable energy sources as a replacement for cheap coal power. Accordingly, they will never give up their existing coal power, nor will they stop building new coal power plants, unless they have affordable alternatives.
Nuclear power offers some promise. It is more reliable and less expensive than wind and solar power. Nations like India are utilizing nuclear power as a key component in their efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in a manner that won’t punish their economies. Nevertheless, nuclear power remains more expensive than coal and American natural gas, anti-nuclear sentiment faces political headwinds from left-leaning environmental groups, and there are security concerns about more and more developing nations going nuclear. Also, there is little America can do to assist nations like India develop nuclear power, as America has itself stalled in its nuclear power research and development during recent decades.
America can, however, impact global emissions by exporting more natural gas. Developing nations currently choose coal over natural gas because the fracking revolution is currently an American-specific phenomenon. The shale formations from which natural gas is fracked are numerous and readily accessible in the United States, but less so in other countries. American energy companies also possess technological advantages that make shale gas production more economical in America than elsewhere.
Russia currently leads the world in natural gas exports, yet Russian natural gas is roughly twice as expensive as American natural gas. Economically, this puts the global natural gas market approximately where it was in the United States prior to the fracking revolution. Natural gas power is economical in the United States, but not economical elsewhere.
The solution is obvious. The world wants affordable, low-emission natural gas power, but the United States is the only nation that can deliver it. U.S. energy producers are more than happy to export natural gas overseas, where it will simultaneously lower energy prices and carbon dioxide emissions, but U.S. political obstacles block natural gas exports. There is currently just a single operational terminal authorized to export U.S. natural gas. It is time to fully remove political obstacles and expand U.S. natural gas export capacity.
The Obama administration took some positive first steps in this regard. Although some arms of the Obama administration joined some state and local governments in blocking the construction of U.S. natural gas export terminals, the Obama Department of Energy allowed the planning and initial-stage construction of additional export terminals. The Trump administration has continued this work, giving further encouragement to U.S. natural gas exports. While foreign nations will economically and environmentally benefit from American natural gas, so will the U.S. environment and economy. Just as Saudi Arabia benefits from foreign money flowing into the country to purchase oil, so will the U.S. economy benefit from foreign money flowing in to purchase natural gas. And natural gas replacing coal in other nations will reduce global carbon dioxide emissions that global warming activists claim pose an imminent threat to America.
So global carbon dioxide emissions may have emerged from a three-year plateau last year, but America has the tools and a common-ground political alliance to fight carbon dioxide emissions at home and abroad.
[This article first appeared at Forbes.com.]