Carbon emissions shrank in 2023 even as the economy grew, a sign the U.S. is plodding toward a more sustainable future.
Greenhouse gas emissions fell by about 1.9% in 2023, according to a preliminary analysis from the Rhodium Group, which tracks the U.S. progress toward its climate goals and provides yearly reports. The economy grew by about 2.4%.
“This is the first time since 2019 that the economy has grown while emissions have fallen,” said Ben King, an associate director leading the Rhodium Group energy team.
The modest emissions reduction represents progress, but also shows that U.S. climate goals remain far-fetched without additional ambition at the highest levels of government and industry.
U.S emissions fell sharply in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, when activities were restricted, and then rebounded in the two years that followed.
Overall, yearly greenhouse gas emissions are now about 17% lower than they were in 2005. The Biden administration, which rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement in 2021, said it would target emission cuts of 50% to 52% by 2030.
“If we want to keep the U.S.’s Paris targets in sight, which is cutting our 2005 emissions levels in half by 2030, we would need to see a tripling of that 2% decline last year every year until 2030,” King said of last year’s results. “Another push is needed to put the U.S. on the right track and show global leadership.”
In Paris in 2015, world leaders agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to aim for 1.5 degrees above what average temperatures were in preindustrial times. Since then, many countries have struggled to cut fossil fuels from their economies, and efforts remain off the necessary pace to limit warming. A November report from the Stockholm Environment Institute found that the world’s governments in 2030 planned to produce about 70% more fossil fuels than it would take to limit warming to 2 degrees C.
Top climate scientists have said that exceeding 2 degrees C could trigger a slew of climate catastrophes. Ice scientists, for example, have grown concerned that nearing 2 degrees could cause the long-term melt of ice shelves in Greenland, West Antarctica and vulnerable parts of East Antarctica, committing the planet to nearly 40 feet of sea-level rise over a few hundred years.
Some parts of the U.S. economy are decarbonizing faster than others.
The power and buildings sectors were responsible for the 2023 emissions decline, according to the Rhodium analysis. The U.S. had a relatively mild winter in 2023, which reduced energy needs for heating. The country also benefited from its continued phaseout of coal in favor of natural gas, solar energy and wind generation.
Meanwhile, emissions from the transportation and industry sectors rose by about 2% and 1%, respectively.
President Joe Biden’s signature climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, was designed to incentivize further electrification in those sectors, and King said subsidies are starting to show they’re making an impact.
“We’re starting to see some of the policies that were part of the Inflation Reduction Act have an effect, particularly when it comes to domestic manufacturing — building more solar panels, more electric vehicles and EV batteries in the U.S.,” the Rhodium energy expert said. “The question is now how can we drive uptake?”
Electric vehicle sales hit a new high mark in 2023, but King said it could take several more years to turn over the U.S. fleet and begin to see a dent in transportation emissions.
King added that the 2024 presidential election will likely determine if the U.S. will still have a chance to achieve its climate goals and meet its Paris targets.
“Both sustaining our current course as well as doing something more ambitious will require an executive branch committed to climate and a Congress that’s not getting in the way of that,” King said. “I don’t have high hopes for a big sweeping climate package for 2024, but in 2025 and beyond, we’ll need to see some progress.”
Evan Bush is a science reporter for NBC News. He can be reached at [email protected].
Source : NBC News