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America delivers climate hope, again. US CO2 fell 3.8% last year

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The world has yet to figure out how to stop the relentless increase in global climate pollution. But one of the biggest obstacles to international climate action appears to be shifting.

The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) just reported that America's CO2 emissions plunged 3.8% in 2012. This is especially remarkable because their GDP grew by 2.8%. Economy growing -- emissions falling. America's CO2 emissions have now fallen in five of the last seven years since 2005.

Since 2005

Last year the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced  that between 2006 and 2011 the US had the largest reduction in climate pollution of all the world's countries or regions. They estimated the overall annual reduction at 430 million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2). The main reasons were "lower oil use in the transport sector … and a substantial shift from coal to gas in the power sector." Now the US has followed that up by reducing CO2 pollution another 208 MtCO2 last year.

All told, US CO2 pollution was 709 MtCO2 lower than in 2005.

How big a deal is cutting 709 MtCO2 in annual emissions? It vastly exceeds all the CO2 emitted in Canada, the world's ninth largest climate polluting nation. From a US perspective it's equal to eliminating the combined CO2 emissions from seven western states: Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Nevada. That includes the economic giant of California that boasts one of the world's 12 largest economies, rivaling Canada's.

It seems America -- the planet's biggest all-time CO2 polluter -- is finally reducing its emissions.

Breaking the global log jam?

As my top chart shows, US CO2 emissions are falling faster than what President Obama pledged in the global Copenhagen Accord.

Until now, the failure by the USA to make significant emission cuts has been at the center of the global deadlock over what to do about climate pollution. Many of the biggest polluting nations -- such as China, India, Russia, Canada, Australia, and Brazil -- have been reluctant to create policies to reduce CO2 as long as the biggest bad-boy of them all, the USA, wasn't joining in.

But now Americans are both promising CO2 cuts and actually doing it. In doing so they are, for now, leading the world in total CO2 reductions.

Can they keep it up? Who knows. They have surprised most observers in the last few years, and there are many hopeful signs their success can continue.

Take a look at my chart below to which I've added coal, oil and natural gas CO2 changes.


Clearly major shifts are underway in America's energy landscape. Coal and oil burning are falling while natural gas burning is increasing. Here's a table of the changes since 2005:


% change

MtCO2 change

Coal CO2

down 24%

-526 MtCO2

Oil CO2

down 14%

-375 MtCO2

Natural gas CO2

 up 16%

+192 MtCO2


down 12%

-709 MtCO2

Let's take a closer look at why coal and oil are declining.

Coal is a "dead man walking"

Coal use in the US plunged 24% in the last seven years as cheap natural gas, a surge in renewable energy and an overall decline in energy demand formed the perfect storm.

The derided and abandoned US Kyoto target called for their CO2 emissions to fall 7% between 1990 and 2012. US coal CO2 actually fell 9% over those years.

Declines in US coal CO2 look set to continue over the years as a suite of new Clean Air requirements for coal-fired power plants start to kick in. At the same time, prices for low-carbon alternatives to coal -- like solar and wind -- are falling rapidly. Even the most expensive of these, solar without any subsidies, is now cheaper than building new coal plants in some of the sunniest parts of the US.

Deutsche Bank has called coal use in the US a "dead man walkin'" saying:

"Banks won’t finance them. Insurance companies won’t insure them. The EPA is coming after them…And the economics to make it clean don’t work."

Share prices of the major US coal companies are now in a freefall with some entering bankruptcy. The four largest coal extraction companies in the USA are Peabody, Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources and Cloud Peak. Combined they extracted over half the coal mined in American in 2011. Their share prices in the last two years have declined 56%, 77%, 73% and 26% respectively.

For other large US coal extractors it is far worse: James River Coal -78%; Walter Energy -81%; Oxford Resource -90%; both Cline and Patriot Coal -99%.

Investing in US coal is making junk bonds seem tame.

Climate scientists have been warning for years that most of the reserves of the dirtiest fossil fuels, like coal, must stay in the ground forever if humanity has a hope of preserving a safe climate system. The term of art is "unburnable carbon." As the climate reality continues to unfold, trillions of dollars in assets are at risk of being stranded and written off.

The world is crammed with dangerously over-inflated carbon bubbles caused by "irrational fossil fuel exuberance". The more climate-polluting the fossil fuel the more likely it is a carbon bubble waiting to pop. Alberta's tar sands is certainly one, as I'll discuss below. US coal is another.

In my view what we are witnessing now is the popping of US coal's carbon bubble. Pension funds beware.

Oil is pricing itself out of its largest market

Americans buy more oil than any other nation on earth. But, as I wrote about previously, rapidly rising oil prices are driving a big decline in America's oil use. The price of oil has more than doubled since 2005. Double the price of a commodity and people will use less.

Sure enough, the decline in US oil consumption since 2005 has been dramatic. Oil consumption has fallen 14% in seven years. Americans now buy 2.5 million fewer barrels of oil every day. That's like turning off the spigots on three Keystone-XL-sized pipelines.

But despite buying less oil, the Americans' bill for it rose by $250 billion a year. That is an extra $1,000 per adult every year -- for less oil. Ouch. When it comes to dollars, Americans pay attention. Maybe that is why even the auto makers stood side by side with Obama as he announced regulations forcing cars and light trucks in the USA to improve their miles-per-gallon by 40 percent this decade. As vehicles become more efficient oil use will fall further.

As the EIA just highlighted last week, total vehicle miles travelled in the US have declined more than 3% since 2007 while the average vehicle is now 16% more efficient. Since almost all oil in US is used for transportation, the table is set for continuing declines in oil emissions too.

Living in the 1960s

The CO2 declines per person are even more impressive. The average American's CO2 emissions are down to levels not seen since 1964 -- half a century ago.

Way back in 1964 Americans were listening to speeches by President Johnson and Malcolm X. Racial segregation was still legal and the KKK were kidnapping and killing black Americans. The Vietnam war was just getting started and Disney's Mary Poppins had its world premiere. IBM's screaming hot new System/360 computer took up a fair sized room when it debuted that year. It was also a thousand times less powerful than today's iPhone. Cell phones of course didn't exist. Neither did video games, personal computers, the internet or even the ability to rent a movie to watch at home.

It was another age, and a long time ago. But as my chart below show, Americans are returning to fossil fuel consumption levels from that distant era.


Per person, Americans are back to 1960 levels of oil consumption. Oil is the biggest source of CO2 in the USA. Now with rising oil prices, new vehicle regulations and the emergence of electric cars it looks like the USA's biggest source of CO2 will continue to fall. Considering that Americans could cut oil use in half and still use more per person than Europeans, there is clearly lots of room for big declines ahead.

Coal is the number two source of CO2 for Americans. Today the average American burns an amount similar to what they did in 1958, and even less than they did in the 1940s. Like oil, the forces aligned against coal in the USA seem to point to a continuing long term decline in coal CO2.

Here are the per capita changes since 2005:


% change

tCO2 change

Coal CO2

 down 28%

-2.1 tCO2

Oil CO2

down 19%

-1.7 tCO2

Natural gas CO2


+0.4 tCO2


down 17%

-3.4 tCO2


Historically, no nation has done more to cause the climate crisis than the USA. Today, Americans are still in the top tier of CO2 emitters per person, along with Canadians. But it is exactly America's historical role of biggest and dirtiest that makes their sharp decline in CO2 pollution so noteworthy and potentially game changing at the global level.

In Canada, the game most likely to be changed by this trend is Alberta's tar sands roulette.

Bubble trouble in the tar sands casino

"When elephants dance the grass gets trampled" -- African proverb

America's declining emissions are a serious threat to the expansion plans of the Alberta tar sands. Here's why...

(7) Comments

Judy Cross October 25th 2013 | 8:20 PM

Don't let the fact that CO2 has absolutely no influence on climate bother you....just keep banging the drum for the greatest scam ever attempted.  Luckily, few people are still buying it now that in spite of increases in atmospheric CO2, average temperature has gone down over the last 15 years.

The 1990 IPCC Report predicted about 120 mm of sea level rise by the year 2014. Tide gauges were their only sea level reference in 1990, and have shown about one fifth of the IPCC’s forecast.

ScreenHunter_1848 Oct. 25 08.54

'As a result of their spectacular failure, they have increased their confidence levels moving forward.'

Joseph F October 26th 2013 | 7:07 AM

Hi Barry,

Very good graphics as usual. You are clearly a professional at reproducing other people's data.

In all your coverage of big bad Alberta and our addiction to evil oil, I never hear you speak kindly of your country. For example, why do you not tell your viewers the truth of the fact that over 75% of Canadian electricity is produced without emitting that nasty pollutant CO2?

Why do you praise the US, while denounce your own countrymen? Please give us credit for the fact that over 65% of our electricity is generated from 'renewables.'

Finally, other than wind and solar, which only produce electricity half of the time, what form of energy & energy conversion technology is going to replace big bad oil?

Remember now, there is no other technology than combustion technology that requires as less concrete, copper, iron, lanthanum......(i.e., nasty resource industries) to produce a single joule of energy! It is not all about CO2 - a proper lifecycle assessment looks at the total environmental footprint - had to remind you cause of course, you are an artist and not a scientist.

Jeffrey Simpson October 26th 2013 | 9:09 AM

Nobody wishes to acknowledge that their daily actions are harmful to the planet.  While everyone is permitted their own opinion, everyone is not permitted their own facts. I will stick with the scientists and ignore the Denier Group of which Judy is a very active member.

Bruce Voigt October 26th 2013 | 9:09 AM
In a nut shell, cells of earths aura absorb at their cell nucleus the nuclei or spirit (aura) of encountered cells. These are on their way to other worlds to evolve. Reaction cause some to stop along the way producing what has been named atmosphere, water, weather etc. This of course includes the absorption of carbon, some returning to earth in the nucleus of a water cell. Trees and plants do not collect carbon from the atmosphere but by their roots (experiment 208).
Tony November 4th 2013 | 1:01 AM

It's truly a remarkable statistic that despite apparently rising GDP, emissions are falling, in the US. What are the causes? Certainly, you've highlighted a move from coal to natural gas but that accounts for less than half of the emission cuts. If people are spending less, can GDP grow? Maybe GDP isn't growing. There have been many tweaks to the GDP calculations over the last few decades. Is the official GDP calculation credible? It might be if the US has exported a lot of its emissions as businesses move some of their work and manufacturing abroad. Can efficiencies account for the decrease? Maybe but it seems unlikely that across the board efficiencies would be coordinated and continual. Globally, emissions have never fallen if GDP has risen. I doubt an economy as large as the US could buck that overall trend.

From official figures, it does appear that income for most US workers has fallen over the last 20 years; only the richest have seen gains. Falling emissions and rising GDP just doesn't seem likely.

Thomas Chan November 24th 2013 | 6:06 AM

@ Judy Cross, Joseph F:

As it happens, accumulative trapped solar heat energy due to the effects of human-sourced greenhouse gas emissions is stored largely in alternate forms of potential energy within the earth's atmosphere and marine and soil environments, amongst others, thereby not necessarily resulting in the amount of sea level or overall atmospheric temperature increases as initial climate models may have predicted, but have effectively lead, for instance, to more powerful weather-climate events and permafrost melt (the latter in turn critically further exacerbating carbon level increases due to said releases through decompostion of thawed plant material).

These potential heat-sourced energy effects can be observed currently as effecting the case of more powerful weather-climate events by means of higher atmospheric water vapour or moisture content (i.e. 'precipitable water' content), increased local ocean temperatures, and more persistent local high-pressure weather systems.

The eventual severe weather-climate events have been experienced over the past decades in more frequent record high-intensity storm events (i.e. hurricanes, tornados, tropical cyclones/typhoons, extreme high-rainfall and/or high-snowfall events, etc.), and/or higher and lower local temperature extreme events and their eventual effects, such as regional droughts, ice-storms, record/high snowfall in formerly moderate climate areas.

The following are some recent notable events, as outlined, in no particular order:

• Typhoon Haiyan of November 2013: One of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, described by experts as the strongest typhoon that has ever made landfall in the course of recorded human history. It arrived in the Philippines November 7, 2013, effectively the 5th super-typhoon (a typhoon in which maximum sustained winds attain or exceed 240 km/h) of the 2013 Pacific typhoon season. Current estimates are that the storm had killed a record 10,000 people and inflicted a stunning $15 BILLION USD in economic damage.

• Hurricane Sandy of October 2012: The second-costliest hurricane in United States history; estimates as of June 2013 assess damage over 68 BILLION US dollars ($ USD) -- a total surpassed only by Hurricane Katrina (2005). At least 286 people were killed along the path of the storm in 7 countries. Damage in the United States amounted to 65 BILLION USD. At least 286 people were killed as a result of the storm.

• Inland river flash-flood event in southern Alberta of June 2013: Beginning on June 19, extreme high-rainfall of up to 200 liters per square meter in one day, coinciding with late high snow-accumulation melt, resulting in probably the worst flooding ever experienced there. Some 75,000 people were evacuated; initial estimates indicate an overall economic loss of more than $3 BILLION USD.

• Colorado’s 'Biblical' flood of September 2013: The Boulder, Colorado area was inundated by record rainfall, with MORE THAN HALF A YEAR'S WORTH OF RAIN FALLING OVER 3 DAYS. 24-hour rainfall totals were enough to qualify this storm as a 1-IN-1,000-YEAR EVENT (i.e. 0.1 percent chance of occurring in a given year). Numerous longstanding climate records had been smashed, including the all-time 24-hour rainfall record in Boulder. New historical high water marks were recorded for many affected rivers and streams.

NOTE: This had come on the heels of a summer when Boulder experienced a moderate drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor; this summer also featured Colorado's most destructive wildfire on record. (see note item below)

• Colorado wildfires due to drought conditions of June, 2013: Dry and hot conditions aided the spread of numerous wildfires in the West, where Colorado had seen its most destructive wildfire on record, which burned at least 500 homes. Several other wildfires were burning across Colorado as of June 24, 2013, including the West Fork Complex fire, which had already burned through nearly 80,000 acres in southern Colorado. The fire was burning through stands of beetle-killed spruce trees (YET AGAIN, a condition attributed to local climate warming), according to Inciweb (a website that provides fire information from federal, state, and local agencies).

• Series of severe tornadoes and thunderstorms in the Midwestern and lower Great Plains US regions from May 18 to 21 of 2013: This event occurred just days after a deadly tornado outbreak struck Texas and surrounding southern states on May 15. During the storm's 11-day trek across the United States, it produced at least 60 tornadoes, 4 of which were rated EF3 or higher. On May 21, a tornado of category EF5 (maximum strength) hit the town of Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City; the tornado reached peak wind speeds of up to 300 km/h and was unusually large, with a width of nearly 2 kilometers. The system's slow movement also resulted in RECORD-BREAKING RAINS in North Dakota, New York, and Vermont. Additionally, during the overnight of May 25–26, unusually cold air behind the cyclone resulting in RECORD-LATE SNOWS across northern New England. Well over 1,000 buildings were completely destroyed in Moore alone. Damage was estimated to amount to $2–5 BILLION USD, making it ONE OF THE COSTLIEST SEVERE WEATHER EVENTS ON RECORD.

• Southwest China floods of July 2013: Starting during the weekend of July 6–7, China experienced heavy rainfall affecting 20 provinces and disrupting the lives of roughly 6 MILLION people. The southwest was the hardest hit, experiencing what was described as THE HEAVIEST RAINFALL IN 50 YEARS. The rain triggered multiple landslides that buried dozens of people. Official reports stated that nearly 100 centimeters of rain fell in the city of Dujiangyan (Sichuan) in just 40 hours, between July 8-10, which was THE HEAVIEST RAINFALL THE REGION HAS EXPERIENCED SINCE RECORD KEEPING BEGAN IN 1954. Thousands of homes had been destroyed, and more than 81,000 acres of crops had been inundated by the floodwaters.

• Mekong River flood of September 2013, affecting Cambodia, Thailand, Lao PDR, and Vietnam: Mekong River flash floods had devastated large areas, killing at least 168 people and affecting more than 2.1 million others as of mid-September. Floodwaters had inundated more than 100,000 homes, ruined about 350,000 hectares of farmland, destroyed or damaged over 4100 km of roads. Hundreds of schools and dozens of health centers had also been inundated, according to the National Committee for Disaster Management (NCDM). More than half of Cambodia’s 24 cities and provinces had been affected by the Mekong River overflowing and flash-flooding.

• Argentina floods in April 2013: From 2–3 April 2013, the northeastern section of Buenos Aires Province, Argentina, experienced extremely heavy rainfall, resulting in several flash floods. Key transportation routes were submerged, and mass transit services disabled. various sources reported that between 140-190 millimetres of rain fell in only 2 hours, a record rainfall not seen in the month of April in at least 100 YEARS. Buenos Aires City Mayor Mauricio Macri stated that this was the SECOND MOST INTENSE RAINFALL SINCE 1906. It was possibly THE WORST FLOODING IN LA PLATA'S HISTORY.

• Catastrophic flooding in southern and eastern Germany and neighbouring states in May and June of 2013: Resulted an overall loss of more than $16 BILLION USD. The frequency of flood events in Germany and central Europe has INCREASED BY A FACTOR OF 2 SINCE 1980, particularly in concurrence with MORE FREQUENT HEAVY RAINFALL EVENTS. In some places, 400 liters of rain per square meter fell within a few days, and up to 100 liters per square meter were recorded over a very large area. As the ground was already saturated from the RAINIEST SPRING FOR 50 YEARS, the consequence was an extensive flood in Bavaria and eastern Germany. In Passau, the HIGHEST WATER LEVEL SINCE 1501 was recorded. In Magdeburg, the floods reached a record level. More than 20,000 people had to be evacuated.

Professor Peter Höppe, Head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research unit, noted: "It is evident that days with weather conditions that lead to such flooding are BECOMING MORE FREQUENT and that such weather systems tend to REMAIN STATIONARY FOR LONGER. With this higher persistence of weather patterns, the potential for heavy and long-lasting precipitation within a trough situation, for example, increases. The counterpoint to this are STATIONARY HIGH-PRESSURE SYSTEMS which in summer INCREASE THE RISK OF HEATWAVES AND PERIODS OF DROUGHT." (emphases added)

Are these actual climate effects (as noted, within ONLY the past 2 years) "spectacular" enough to affect YOUR "confidence levels" yet?

Thomas Chan November 24th 2013 | 6:06 AM

@ Judy Cross, Joseph F: As to the time period of the listed climate events in my previous comment post, my stated 2-year period should be corrected to that of 1 YEAR.