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Some statistics to get excited about

Posted: Thursday, Jan 17th, 2013

It’s probably not a good idea to reach a conclusion based on a limited amount of data.

But when I came across some statistics which show that national carbon dioxide emissions dropped sharply in 2011 and early 2012, I began to feel an unshakable sense of optimism that we’re heading in the right direction.

When I say “we,” I mean the United States, and not the European Union or China.

Countries in other parts of the world are actually increasing the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases that they release into the atmosphere through their daily activities.

In all fairness, the U.S. would certainly bear some of the blame if rising sea levels engulf the Maldives, or if more and more polar bears find themselves stranded on floating sheets of ice.

However, I have some reason to hope that all of the gloom-and-doom talk about the most pronounced effects linked to global warming may be a little premature, based on the statistics I mentioned.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, national energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide in 2011 fell 526 million metric tons below 2005 levels.

It was the fourth time in a six-year period that those levels dropped.

It stands to reason that we might have a sluggish economy to thank for the decline. But according to the energy agency, those levels declined even as the economy slowly expanded and the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rose.

The trend continued into the first three months of 2012.

During that time, overall emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the U.S. fell to their lowest levels in 20 years, and on a per-capita basis, they’re on par with where they were in January 1961.

That’s right — 1961.

I don’t know if that comparison jumps out at you, but it astonishes me.

In 1961, there were a little more than 179 million Americans living from coast to coast. Today, I’m guessing that the population has easily surpassed 309 million people.

That means there are more cars on the road, more homes and businesses to heat and cool, more economic activity in general and more power plants running around the clock.

Yet per-capita emissions are back to where they were during Dwight Eisenhower’s final days in the White House? Remarkable.

I suppose it’s still too early to say whether those recent trends were a fluke or not.

Temperatures across most of the country were considerably milder last winter, so demand for energy dropped accordingly.

We’re currently shivering through a much colder spell, and I suspect that I’m not the only person who’s been cranking his or her thermostat up a notch or two from where it was this time last year.

But the latest forecasts I’ve seen suggest that this coming summer will be cooler as well, which could mean that the nation as a whole will have less use for its energy-gobbling air conditioners and swamp coolers.

Shifting gasoline prices are another variable that could tell us if we’re making real headway to reduce our CO2 emissions.

When prices at the pump rose, demand for gasoline (and heating oil) dropped. So did greenhouse gas emissions from petroleum-based sources, which fell to their lowest levels since the spring of 1996.

The third biggest variable — and perhaps the most important one — is the sudden and unexpected drop-off in coal-fired power generation.

I’m sure there are people out there who will blame some Kenyan Muslim socialist job-killer for the phenomenon — in fact, I met one of them not too long ago in southern Utah.

I believe there’s another explanation behind the lessening dependence on coal — one that offers a classic lesson in the law of supply and demand.

As natural gas prices fell to their lowest levels in more than three decades, many utility companies willingly made the move from coal-fired power to the cheaper energy source.

For much of the latter 20th Century and up through 2005, coal-fired power generation accounted for more than half of the country’s electrical output.

Yet in 2012 alone, utilities retired over 9,000 megawatts of coal-fired capacity, and in the next few years, they plan to close or convert plants that generate another 36,000 megawatts, according to Reuters.

Natural gas-fired plants generated about one-quarter of the power that reached our homes and businesses in 2011, and there was a corresponding drop in CO2 emissions, according to the Energy Information Administration.

In the first three months of last year, emissions from coal were down by 18 percent, plunging to the lowest first-quarter levels since 1983.

Of all the fossil fuels out there, none release more CO2 per kilowatt hour than coal. Natural gas, in comparison, generates about half as much carbon dioxide per energy unit.

Before I continue, I should say that this is not intended to be a diatribe against coal-fired power.

I know that some of the more responsible operators out there have voluntarily installed scrubbers and other controls that have dramatically reduced smokestack emissions over the last 30 years. Of course, those controls don’t sequester greenhouse gases, but I still hold out the hope that ongoing studies of carbon capture and storage technologies can yield results.

Until then, however, the shift toward natural gas seems like a positive one.

Since we don’t live in a bubble, though, there’s the possibility that CO2 reductions here could well be offset by activities in Europe and China.

In 2006, China overtook the U.S. as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, and by 2010, its emissions were 20 percent higher than ours were. They’re expected to climb by another 30 percent over the next two years, despite China’s concerted efforts to clean up its environment.

So far, I haven’t said a thing about renewable energy or energy efficiency. But I think the Chinese would agree that investments in both will pay off around the globe, judging by the sheer number of wind turbines around Xinjiang Province.

One recent trip to the Home Depot in Durango told me that we’ve made big strides on the energy efficiency front.

Stacks of blow-in insulation line the walls by the main exit, while solar panels lustily tempt customers who enter the store. Inside, the shelves are full of long-lasting LED lightbulbs, double-paned windows and energy-efficient appliances.

After decades of inertia and tunnel vision, the American auto industry seems to be getting the message that those same consumers want equally efficient cars.

Time will tell if my conclusions are flawed.

In the meantime, I’ll hold on to my hope that we’re on the right path, and that we can continue to cut our greenhouse gas emissions without sacrificing economic growth.

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