In 2018, the US saw the largest spike in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions since the start of the decade, rising 3.4 percent after three years of decline. That makes it the second highest annual gain of CO2 emissions in over two decades, according to a new report from the Rhodium Group, an independent economic data and policy research firm.
Transport wins the title of sector with the largest source of US emissions for the third time in a row, while the report also reveals a major year-on-year rise in emissions in both the buildings and industrial sectors.
This could signal a worrying trend after a long period of declining CO2 emissions, albeit one aided by the slowdown of the economy after the Great Recession. According to the report, emissions peaked at a little more than 6 billion tons in 2007. Levels then dropped by 12.1 percent between 2007 and the close of 2015, with an average dip of about 1.6 percent each year.
The past three years have also seen declines in emission rates – in fact, the jump reported in 2018 was only beaten by 2010, when the economy was starting to show recovery from the Great Recession. So, what exactly is going on here?
It is somewhat surprising given the fact that coal-fired power plants were shut down at a record-breaking pace last year, despite Trump's pledge to keep them up and running and his tirades on the make-believe phenomenon of "clean" coal. And as for renewables, they seem to be doing better than ever.
Some blame can be put on the abnormally cold weather at the start of 2018, and an increase in energy output for heating and air conditioning over the year. The rise in emissions can also be explained, at least to some extent, by a growing economy. But it's hard to ignore the impact a pro-industry, climate-skeptic government has had on these figures, and the failure to enact effective decarbonization strategies in multiple sectors.
Even though Trump took the US out of the Paris Agreement almost immediately after taking office, the country won't officially leave until 2020. That means technically, they are still committed to the CO2 emission target of 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, as signed by Obama in 2015. To meet those goals, the US would have to reduced emissions (at the very minimum) by an average of 2.6 percent every year for the next seven years, according to the report's calculations.
"That's more than twice the pace the US achieved between 2005 and 2017 and significantly faster than any seven-year average in US history," the report authors state.
However, this little technicality hasn't stopped the current administration taking a softer line on environmental policies, whether that's by slashing EPA funding, tearing down environmental protections, and cutting research into clean energy. We can also add rolling back fuel standards, rinsing federal bodies of actual scientists, and censoring data to the list.
In a perhaps ironic twist of fate, another report recently published highlights the effect climate change is having on the environment, not to mention the economy. In the same year emissions spiked, the US was dealt the three most expensive natural disasters in the world – the Camp Fire ($16.5 billion), Hurricane Michael ($16 billion), and Hurricane Florence ($14 billion). Now, while we cannot say climate change caused these events, climate scientists are fairly certain human-related climate change is making weather-related disasters like these worse.
To end on a positive note, the authors of the report do not expect a "repeat" next year – but they do say the data exposes the challenges facing the US when it comes to cutting back emissions.