U.S. Carbon Emissions Fall by Most Since '82

U.S. carbon emissions related to the transportation use of petroleum fell 5.2 percent last year as Americans cut back on driving because of high oil prices.
U.S. carbon emissions related to the transportation use of petroleum fell 5.2 percent last year as Americans cut back on driving because of high oil prices. (By Toby Talbot -- Associated Press)
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By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Write
Thursday, May 21, 2009

U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide related to energy use fell 2.8 percent last year, according to an estimate by the Energy Information Administration, driven down by high oil prices and the sagging economy. The drop in carbon dioxide emissions was the steepest since 1982.

The amount of carbon dioxide produced for every dollar of economic output also declined by 3.8 percent, the federal agency said, as industry and motorists became more efficient and frugal and as renewable energy sources gained a slightly larger share of the energy market. That was far greater than the average decline in carbon intensity in previous years.

Carbon dioxide is the most prevalent of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, and the EIA numbers were made public as Congress weighs complex legislation that would put a nationwide ceiling on emissions of those gases.

Environmentalists and climate experts said that the new figures shouldn't deter Congress from adopting measures to drive emissions down further. And the EIA estimated that total energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide in 2008 were still about 15.9 percent higher than in 1990, a benchmark year in international negotiations over climate regulations.

"This isn't a big shock given last year's economic downturn," said Frank O'Donnell, head of Clean Air Watch. "The real issue going forward is how to make sure emissions go down as the economy starts growing again . . . . We don't want a sick economy to be the solution to a sick planet."

Last year the economy grew at a sluggish 1.1 percent rate and total U.S. energy consumption slid by 2.2 percent.

Emissions related to the transportation use of petroleum fell a sharper 5.2 percent, largely because of record high crude oil prices, said the EIA, which is part of the Energy Department. Those prices peaked at $147 a barrel last July before plunging later in the year, but motorists continued to pare their driving because of the economic slowdown.

Now oil prices are climbing again. Yesterday, prices for July delivery of a barrel of crude oil jumped 3.2 percent to a new six-month high of $62.04 on the New York Mercantile Exchange after the EIA reported a one-week drop in crude oil and gasoline inventories that topped analysts' expectations.

Analysts said high prices might continue to dampen CO2 emissions from motor vehicles. Since 1990, carbon dioxide emissions from the transportation sector have climbed 21.1 percent, or 1.1 percent a year, the EIA said. But new mileage and emissions standards announced by President Obama on Tuesday are projected to slash emissions sharply by 2016.

In the electric power sector, which relies on coal for half its fuel and which is the biggest single source of carbon dioxide emissions, CO2 output fell 2.1 percent, outpacing the 1.0 percent drop in power generation. Emissions in electric power dropped most steeply -- 28.1 percent -- among the relatively small number of generators still using petroleum.


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