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U.S. emissions and coal generation increased in 2021, threatening Biden's climate goals

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U.S. emissions and coal generation increased last year, analysis finds

Greenhouse gas emissions in the United States surged last year, putting the nation further off track from meeting President Biden's ambitious climate targets, your Climate 202 host and The Washington Post's Brady Dennis reported this morning.

The sobering analysis from the Rhodium Group, an independent research firm, found that U.S. emissions rose 6.2 percent last year compared to 2020, although they remained below pre-pandemic levels. One main reason: a 17 percent jump in the burning of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, marking the first annual increase in the nation’s coal generation since 2014.

The analysis demonstrates that the United States is not emerging from the coronavirus pandemic with a greener economy, making it even harder for Biden to deliver on his pledge to reduce emissions 50 to 52 percent by 2030, according to the authors.

“In an ideal world, we want the economy to rebound, but not the emissions,” said Kate Larsen, a co-author of the analysis who leads Rhodium’s international energy and climate research.

Here are our main takeaways from the Rhodium report:

Coal's surge last year was an 'anomaly'

If you follow climate and energy policy, you're probably aware that coal power is on the decline in the United States, nudged out by abundant natural gas and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

That's still the case. 2021 was an outlier because of unusually high natural gas prices, as producers curbed output in response to lower global demand caused by pandemic shutdowns.

The surge in coal-fired electricity last year was an anomaly and was “almost entirely due to high natural gas prices,” Larsen said. “Emissions from our power sector were pretty much at the whim of energy markets.”

Corinne Le Quéré, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia who was not involved with the Rhodium report, agreed with that assessment.

“Clearly, coal use in the U.S. in the long term is going down,” she said. “The coal power stations are very old, and it would cost a lot of money to invest in them to put them up to shape. And that’s not the direction of travel because of climate policies.”

The Manchin connection: The continued decline of coal has been a source of concern for Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who has family ties to the coal industry — and who said in late December that he could not support Democrats' sweeping climate and social spending bill.

Transportation emissions are rising, threatening Biden's EV goals

The analysis found that the biggest increase in emissions in 2021 came from the transportation sector, which looms as the country's largest source of greenhouse gases, accounting for 31 percent of all carbon pollution.

The authors attributed the increase to a resurgence of road freight, as thousands of diesel-powered trucks rumbled along the nation’s highways to deliver consumer goods, as well as a modest recovery in passenger travel.

At the onset of the pandemic in 2020, many Americans began driving less as they worked remotely and large swaths of the economy shut down. But after the arrival of coronavirus vaccines and the lifting of some pandemic restrictions, more Americans took to the roads last year.

To make a meaningful dent in transportation emissions, experts say that more drivers will need to replace their gas-powered cars with electric vehicles — in addition to ditching cars altogether for biking, walking and public transit. But EV sales only accounted for about 4 percent of U.S. car sales in 2021 — a far cry from Biden's goal of EV sales making up 50 percent of new car sales by the end of this decade.

“When you park your car in the driveway for a year, it's still the same polluting vehicle when you turn it back on,” said Rob Jackson, a professor at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project.

“So when vehicle miles return to normal, which they haven't quite done yet for the United States,” he said, “transportation emissions will be just the size they were before unless we're able to swap out those vehicles for electric or other technologies.”

Agency alert

Biden's Energy Department faces delays in undoing Trump's war on efficiency

President Donald Trump complained that more efficient lightbulbs made him “look orange,” while his administration rolled back efficiency standards for items including lightbulbs, dishwashers, dryers and shower heads.

Now, more than three dozen efficiency standards are overdue for an update, but the Energy Department has been slow to act on the standards or reinstate rules that were weakened by the Trump administration, The Post’s Anna Phillips reports.

Manufacturers have pushed back on some of Biden’s moves to tighten standards. Meanwhile, part of the holdup has been at the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a division of the Office of Management and Budget. Both offices are understaffed and without Senate-confirmed leaders.

Tightening efficiency standards could have a major effect on climate change. By 2050, new efficiency standards could prevent 3 gigatons of carbon emissions, the equivalent of closing between 13 and 25 coal-fired power plants, according to a 2020 report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Biden to nominate climate expert for resilience role at FEMA

Biden on Friday announced his intent to nominate Alice Hill as deputy administrator for resilience at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Hill comes from the Council on Foreign Relations​​​​​​,​ where she is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment.

Hill previously served as special assistant to former president Barack Obama and senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council. Before those roles, Hill was senior counselor to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, where she led the development of the agency's climate adaptation plan.

Hill tweeted on Saturday that she was “honored and excited” to be tapped for the position at FEMA, which plays a key role in responding to climate disasters such as wildfires and floods. More than 4 in 10 Americans live in a county that was struck by climate-related extreme weather last year, according to a recent Washington Post analysis.

On the Hill

Talks between Manchin and the White House over Build Back Better are on ice

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) on Jan. 4 said he has not spoken with the White House about the Build Back Better Act since he stated his opposition in December. (Video: The Washington Post)

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) sent a $1.8 trillion counteroffer to the Build Back Better Act the week before Christmas. But even that offer — which included hundreds of billions in climate spending — may be off the table after a breakdown in negotiations between the senator and the White House, The Post’s Jeff Stein reports.

Manchin said he is no longer involved in talks with the White House around the climate and social spending package. Senior Democrats told The Post that at this point, they doubt Manchin would support his own offer even if the White House adopted it in full. 

Manchin said last week that he supports much of the climate legislation in Build Back Better, but the details of his climate commitments remain unclear.

And it’s not certain that whatever common ground does exist will be enough to secure a deal. Democratic leaders in Congress have already pivoted to a focus on voting rights. Meanwhile, even if the White House went all in on Manchin’s counteroffer, it’s not clear the plan would make it through the House, where Democrats cannot afford to lose more than three votes, or the Senate, where Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has already ruled out some of the tax increases that Manchin supports.

Pressure points

North Carolina to adopt more aggressive emissions targets

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, signed an executive order on Friday setting a statewide goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent compared to 2005 levels, reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and registering 1.25 million electric vehicles by the end of the decade, the Associated Press reports. The order also directs state agencies to consider environmental justice when making decisions on climate change.

The past seven years have been the planet's hottest on record “by a clear margin,” scientists say

The past seven years have been the planet's hottest on record "by a clear margin," according to new data released today by the Copernicus Climate Change Service, a program of the European Commission, Alexandra Larkin of CBS News reports. 2021 was the fifth warmest year ever recorded, the data shows. Last year, the climate agency reported that 2020 was tied with 2016 for the warmest on record. 

A tiny New Mexico town isn’t ready to give up its coal mining legacy

The coal piles that remain in Madrid, N.M., are tied to contaminated runoff. But more than a half-century after the last mine shut down, locals in the town a half-hour south of Santa Fe are reluctant to bury the piles, Elizabeth Miller writes for The Post. These remains of the coal industry are part of the town’s history and help draw tourists and film productions, along with money to replace the lost coal revenue.


We hope our D.C. readers got to see the double rainbow on Sunday!

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