Lester R. Brown -- U.S. Is Now in a Position to Push for Steep Carbon Cuts

By Lester R. Brown
Sunday, September 20, 2009

The United States has entered a new energy era, ending a century of rising carbon emissions. As the U.S. delegation prepares for the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December, it does so from a surprisingly strong position, one based on a dramatic 9 percent drop in U.S. carbon emissions over the past two years and the promise of further huge reductions.

Prominent among these carbon-cutting initiatives are stronger automobile fuel-economy standards, appliance efficiency standards, and the potential to heat, cool and light buildings with carbon-free sources of electricity. On the supply side are efforts supporting the development of U.S. wind, solar and geothermal energy resources.

Even though part of this decline in carbon emissions was caused by the recession and higher gasoline prices, part of it came from gains in energy efficiency and shifts to carbon-free sources of energy, including record amounts of new wind-generating capacity. This impressive drop in carbon emissions should enable the United States to push for a steep cut in Copenhagen.

For a country where oil and coal use have been growing for more than a century, the fall since 2007 is startling. Last year, oil use dropped 5 percent, coal 1 percent and overall carbon emissions 3 percent. Projections for this year, based on Energy Department data for the first eight months, show oil use down by an additional 5 percent. Coal is estimated to fall by 10 percent. Altogether, carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, including natural gas, dropped 9 percent over the two years.

In the past, I've been considered a pessimist in my work on mounting population pressures and looming food crises. I'm still very concerned about these issues. But today the improving numbers on carbon emissions are not debatable.

Although Congress is considering legislation that would cut emissions only 15 or 20 percent by 2020, it's clear to me that with just a little effort, the United States could far surpass this. Given the potentially catastrophic climate change the world is facing, we should push in Copenhagen for an 80 percent reduction by 2020.

Efforts to reduce fossil fuel use and cut carbon emissions are underway at every level of government -- national, state and city -- and in corporations, utilities and universities. Beyond this, millions of climate-conscious, cost-cutting Americans are altering their lifestyles to reduce energy use and carbon emissions.

Despite the coal industry's $45 million annual budget to promote "clean coal," utilities are giving up the coal ghost. On July 9, Bruce Nilles, coordinator of the Sierra Club's national grass-roots program to ban new coal-fired power plants, announced the 100th cancellation of a proposed plant since 2001.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, with a fleet of 11 aging coal plants (average age 47 years) and a court order to install more than $1 billion worth of pollution controls, is considering closing its John Sevier Fossil Plant near Rogersville, Tenn., along with the six oldest units out of the eight at the Widows Creek Fossil Plant near Stevenson, Ala. Altogether, about 22 coal-fired power plants in 12 states are being replaced by wood-fired power, wind farms or natural gas plants.

Utilities are facing falling demand not only because of the economic slump, but also because of advances in efficiency. The potential is evident in the wide variation among states, with some embracing energy-efficient technologies and others mired in old ones. The Rocky Mountain Institute calculates that if the 40 least-efficient states were to achieve the electrical efficiency of the 10 most-efficient ones, national electricity use would be reduced by one third. This would allow the equivalent of 62 percent of the country's 617 coal-fired power plants to be closed.

While some U.S. coal plants are closing, wind farms are multiplying. Last year, 102 wind farms came online, providing 8,400 megawatts of electricity-generating capacity, the equivalent of eight coal-fired power plants. Forty-nine wind farms were completed in the first half of this year, and 57 more are under construction. More important, 300,000 megawatts of wind projects (think 300 coal plants) await access to the grid so that construction can begin.

U.S. solar cell installations are growing at 40 percent a year. With new government incentives, this rapid growth in rooftop installations on homes, shopping malls and factories should continue.

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