The New York Times reports that carbon dioxide emissions rose in the US by 3.4% in 2018, the biggest increase in eight years, according to a preliminary estimate published Tuesday January 8th.
Even more surprising, this sharp rise in emissions occurred even though a near-record number of coal plants were retired around the United States last year.
The estimate, which was published by research firm Rhodium Group, illustrates the difficulty the US will have in cutting its emissions and making progress against climate change at a time when the Trump administration is rolling back federal emissions standards.
The estimates also show that trends of US carbon emissions have reversed. Overall, fossil fuel emissions in the United States fell significantly after 2005 and declined during each of the past three years. Helping this trend has been the rising popularity of cheap natural gas and renewable energy sources like solar.
But even though these energy sources have increasingly displaced dirtier coal-fired power, that reduction has been more than offset by rising emissions in other parts of the economy. Some of those rising emissions could be pinned to weather: a relatively cold winter in places like New England spurred demand for oil and gas for heating.
Just as important, as the United States economy grew at a strong pace last year, emissions from factories, planes and lorries soared.
“The big takeaway for me is that we haven’t yet successfully decoupled US emissions growth from economic growth,” said Trevor Houser, a climate and energy analyst at the Rhodium Group, according to the New York Times.
The recent boom in US manufacturing, for example, caused emissions in the nation’s industrial sectors like steel, cement, and refineries, to increase by 5.7%. As policymakers at both the state and federal level have shied away from regulating heavy industry in recent years, rising emission levels have gone unchecked.
Heavy industry in the US currently contributes about one-sixth of the country’s carbon emissions. The Rhodium Group estimates that the industrial sector is on track to become the second-biggest source of emissions in California by 2020, behind only transportation, and the biggest source in Texas by 2022.
Transportation has also seen rising fossil fuel use even though fuel-economy standards have steadily tightened. In the first nine months of 2018, gasoline use dropped slightly by 0.1% thanks to better fuel efficiency but Americans drove slightly more miles than in the previous year.
The Trump administration has proposed a halt to rising fuel-economy standards after 2021, though whether a halt will have an impact on average fuel economy is uncertain as most of the auto industry is ramping up investment in electric vehicles.
More notable regarding emission levels has been the uptick in trucking and air travel in 2018, which led to a 3% increase in diesel and jet fuel use and an overall rise in transportation emissions for the year. Air travel and freight have attracted less attention from policymakers since it is currently considered more difficult to improve efficiency standards or shift to electric power.