Pollution
November 22, 2019

America will miss its 2005 Copenhagen Accord target of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. Moreover, the current presidential administration insists America will abandon the Paris Agreement, and renege on our pledge to reduce GHG by 26%-28% below 1990 levels by 2030. Rhodium Group's Final US Emissions Estimates for 2018 provides ample evidence of America's failure to act. After three years of continuous decline, U.S. Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning fossil fuels increased by 2.7% in 2018, resulting in the second largest yearly increase since 2000. This is a startling development given energy-related CO2 emissions comprise 86% of all GHG emissions.

American Flag

Energy consumption and GHG emissions are greatly influenced by geography, population, standard of living, economic growth, and politics. In 2018, worldwide energy consumption rose about 2.3% driven by rapidly expanding demand for electricity and gas in developing economies. At the same time renewables accounted for 26% of electricity production worldwide, contributing 36% to the total energy mix in Europe. Unfortunately, the renewable energy sectors in China and the U.S. only produced 26.3% and 17.5% respectively in 2018.

Norway, Canada, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and New Zealand already produce more than 65% of their electricity from renewables. Norway adopted hydroelectric power at the end of the 19th-century, and with its recent investment in wind, the steadily growing nation of 5.35 million generates 97.9% of its electricity from renewables. With progressive tax incentives, Norway is also on track to prohibit the sale of fossil fuel burning cars starting in 2025.

Since 2006, China has been the world's highest contributor of GHGs from fuel combustion. In 2018, China released the equivalent of 9,467 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, which was more than the next three highest emitters (U.S., India, and Russia) combined, with enough remaining to include France. China surpassed the U.S. in primary energy consumption in 2009. With an increasingly urban population and enormous industrial output, China consumed 3,164 million tons of oil equivalent energy (Mtoe) in 2018 – eclipsing the U.S. by nearly 1,000 Mtoe. At 1.43 billion people, China comprises 18.59% of the world's population and consumes about 22.1% of its energy. Although China's population growth rate has been slowly declining for most of the last fifty years, its energy growth rate is now 3.7%. In spite of China's massive investments in renewables, consumption and emissions will likely increase for many years as the Chinese people look to both their dynastic past and the West to facilitate a new, rapidly evolving, technology-driven lifestyle.

With a population of 329 million, Americans comprise only 4.27% of the world's population but they consume about 16% of the world's energy. Germany is Europe's most populous country and is home to 83.5 million people (1.08% of the world's population) yet it consumes just 2.1% of the world's energy. From 1990 to 2018 Germany's population grew by 5.6% (4.4 million) while its energy use trended down from 355 to 301 Mtoe. American energy use in 1990 was 1,910 Mtoe, after which it peaked at 2,338 Mtoe in 2007 before trending down through 2017. Economic growth combined with a warmer summer and colder winter pushed U.S. energy use back up to 2,258 Mtoe in 2018. During these 29 years the U.S. population increased by 29.8% (75 million), while the Chinese population increased by 21.3% (251 million).

Footprint in the sand

Among the principal industrialized nations, the U.S. has the highest per capita CO2 emissions and is second only to Canada in per capita energy use. An average American residential utility customer uses about 10.4 megawatts of electricity annually, which is about three times more than that used by an average German household. In 2018, milder weather in Europe, coupled with increased energy efficiency, renewables, extensive public transportation and reduced consumption allowed Germany to reduce its total energy use by 3.5%, which lowered consumption in the European Union by 1%.

The American transportation sector constituted the largest share of U.S. GHG emissions for the third straight year in 2018 and this remarkable increase did not include fuel for international jet travel. Low oil prices have continued to satiate America's addiction to large fossil fuel burning vehicles. In cities and towns across America individuals regularly drive large cars, trucks, and SUVs for short light-duty trips, in spite of the availability of electric vehicles, rideshare, biking, and public transportation.

Americans need to take responsibility for their past, present and future energy use by conserving across all sectors, investing in renewable technologies, and generating electricity from renewable sources. In California, solar is overwhelmingly the best choice for most businesses and individuals. Start reducing your GHG emissions now and help America innovate a brighter future for everyone.

Trees on Lake

Seamas Brennan is a Blog Contributor, Researcher, and Engineering Admin. Assistant at Sun Light & Power

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