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Carbon Emissions


U.S. carbon emissions keep slowly falling, down to levels not seen since 1994, despite a lot more people in this country. I’m probably a bit more skeptical about the long-term sustainability of this than some people for three reasons. First, much of this is based upon the transition from burning coal to burning natural gas. While I’m sure that’s going to be the trend for the foreseeable future, unless we invest heavily in a national infrastructure based around wind and solar energy, eventually it may change back to coal if gas prices go up. Second, the poor economy has played a major role in depressing energy use. That won’t last forever, although given policymakers unwillingness to think about the deeper structural reasons for our economic problems, we probably aren’t seeing a return to 1997 or 2005 anytime soon. Third, I’m not sure whether the continued drop in miles driven by Americans will continue. It’s possible because people in their 20s and 30s are more committed to urban life and eschewing cars like no generation in American history since the car was invented. On the other hand, Americans really like driving and a booming economy might just convince a lot of those people that 3000 square foot houses and SUVs in the suburbs aren’t such a bad thing.

Still, a good sign all in all.

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  • Graduated licenses have made getting your license the day you turn 16 less of a big deal. Driving has become more and more associated with school and work, not with anything “fun”. Passenger restrictions mean you and your friends can’t carpool to the movies; night restrictions make it tougher to go on a date and then make out before the curfew kicks in. If your school doesn’t have enough parking (and it’s sometimes one car per kid because of the passenger limits!), you can’t even drive to school.

    Smart phones are also a factor. Waiting for public transit is more entertaining now than it was even five years ago.

    Want to say rise of parents who are more involved in their teenage children’s live contributes, but it’s much harder to get data on that.

    $4/gallon is the point where people have “gas” as a separate entry in their family budget from “car”. I remember driving to the exurbs for a frisbee game and realizing it cost me $25 (I have a sporty car that gets shitty mileage, but I only drive 4k miles/year).

    It would not surprise me if we’ve hit peak car. There are plenty of other reasons to be concerned about CO2 emissions — even if they’re declining, they’re probably not declining fast enough; coal exports are on the rise because it’s easier to ship than gas right now, etc.

    • Sherm

      And how can high school and college kids possibly enjoy driving at $4 per gallon? Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I regularly put 2 bucks worth of regular in just to get by for a couple of days. I can’t imagine having to gas up a car at these prices on a part-time job income.

      • Bill Murray

        do many teenagers today even have a part time job? Isn’t teen unemployment very high

        • BigHank53

          The last time I looked at the numbers, owning a car cost $1.5k a year in registration, insurance, inspection, etc. That’s before you drive an inch, and it doesn’t count depreciation or maintenance.

          • Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko and Kazimierz Michał Wacław Wiktor Pułaski

            Living in a small population, cruddy Republican dominated state, I pay less than $500 per year for insurance and registration and we don’t have inspection.

  • JKTHs

    It’s possible because people in their 20s and 30s are more committed to urban life and eschewing cars like no generation in American history since the car was invented.

    You’re welcome.

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    Electronics are also becoming more efficient, with the shift to CFL lighting, laptop/ultraportable computing, and LCD/LED monitors.

    • The Dark Avenger

      I just replaced a CFL on a table lamp that lasted 12 years, and I expect to save even more money on the LED that I used to replace it. It’s really a no-brainer these days, to replace light with an LED.

      What really supports our current way of life, aside from petrochemicals, is that class of elements referred to as ‘rare earths’, the Chinese realized that, and Obama has, apparently:

      The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has announced that a team led by Ames Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, has been selected for an award of up to 120 million over five years to establish an Energy Innovation Hub that will develop solutions to the domestic shortages of rare-earth metals, which are critical in the manufacture of wind turbines and other clean energy technologies.

      The new research center, which will be named the Critical Materials Institute (CMI), will bring together leading researchers from academia, four DOE national laboratories, and the private sector.

      “Rare-earth metals and other critical materials are essential to manufacturing wind turbines, electric vehicles, advanced batteries and a host of other products that are essential to America’s energy and national security,” explains David Danielson, assistant secretary for the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE).

      “The Critical Materials Institute will bring together the best and brightest research minds from universities, national laboratories and the private sector to find innovative technology solutions that will help us avoid a supply shortage that would threaten our clean energy industry as well as our security interests,” he adds.

      In responding to the DOE’s call for proposals, Ames Lab assembled a team that offers capabilities covering the full spectrum of critical-materials research and development, from mining to separations, alloy formulations, component and systems development, and materials recycling.

      • Joshua

        Rare earths aren’t all that rare though – the US used to dig up tons of the stuff, until China started dumping undercutting our prices. If China wants to start a trade war over rare earths, other countries will start digging for it.

        • Bill Murray

          what the rare earths are, are not very concentrated and, for the more important ones, found with radioactive thorium.

          Now thorium is a much better nuclear fuel than uranium — much more of thorium, little to no possibility of going critical, but had the drawback that it doesn’t yield much material that can end up in bombs, so it hasn’t been pursued.

          Mountain Pass in California is starting to process some previously mined material and several new mines are close to being through the permitting process.

  • Mark Jamison

    The average age of the US light truck and vehicle fleet is still increasing. People are still holding on to older vehicles. As the fleet turns over there are significant gains to be made from higher mpg newer vehicles and hybrids coming on line.
    The price of natural gas may be the key. Right now natural gas is priced through local markets but if suppliers start pushing gas for export the market will become a world market with the same sort of fluctuations due to political events that the oil markets see.
    We should be able to make real progress on reducing emissions over the next five to ten years. The problem is that China and India will swamp whatever gains we make. Add to that the feedback loops occurring in areas with permafrost and it’s unlikely we’ll make much of a dent in global emissions before things start getting really ugly.

    • That’s a good point.

      Let’s not forget the economic component of sustainable development that came out of the 1992 Rio conference. Economic growth is a necessary (though not sufficient) element of environmental progress.

      • shah8

        Example: Impoverished people in European periphery going back to wood stoves because they can’t afford central heating.

        Growth matters. Not so much the sheer mass of it, but also being able to undertake more complex tasks.

        The political and economic crisis is fundamentally about the rejection of what further growth could mean, in terms of control over the population. Napster just wasn’t the least of it. Growth makes mercantilism unviable as more local economies around the world develop along with their political institutions. Growth make economic and political blocs unviable in their current form, think NATO before the EU (which uses a gold standard to retard it).

        Growth also means that more empowered people can take care of their own local areas, and not be forced to despoil them for distant capital.

  • Njorl

    I’m not skeptical about maintaining these decreases. I’m more skeptical about them being meaningful. I think there has been a hesitancy to set useful goals for reducing carbon emissions because they might scare people off. We’re still well over 4 times the per capita world emission level, and that average has to drop by a lot.

    I think if we continue working on all the little individual things we’re doing to reduce CO2 emissions, we’re going to wind up emitting over 10 times as much CO2 as is sustainable.

    Being “good” isn’t going to cut it. We’re going to need to be fucking brilliant on a large and very expensive scale.

  • Joshua

    On the other hand, Americans really like driving and a booming economy might just convince a lot of those people that 3000 square foot houses and SUVs in the suburbs aren’t such a bad thing.

    I doubt it. If you are in your 20’s and 30’s and are living in the city it is because you want to. Maybe a bun in the oven will change your mind, but the baby strollers in the city is practically a stereotype these days.

    Our parents left the cities and moved to the suburbs. We spent our childhoods and teen years complaining about how boring the suburbs were. Now we are moving back.

    • JustinV

      Agreed. Also, I don’t think an improving economy is going to convince city-dwelling 20s-30s people like my wife and I to abandon the city for the suburbs. It is currently much more expensive for us to stay in an urban environment than it would be for us to move to the suburbs. If the economy got better I imagine we’d just be happier that the rising tide is hopefully going to make it a little easier to raise a family in the big city.

    • LeeEsq

      Shouldn’t be more that our grandparents or even great-grandparents moved the suburb. My dad grew up in Manhattan but my mom was a first generation suburbanite. Most people in their twenties and thirties are the children or grandchildren of baby-boomers raised in the suburbs. Why are people in their twenties and thirties returning to the city when the baby boomers and Generation X did not?

      Also are people in their twenties and thirties driving less in the more automobile dependent cities?

      • American cities in the 21st century are a lot better than they were in the 70s and 80s. Meanwhile, the suburbs are a lot worse.

        • LeeEsq

          That makes sense. Our cities were probably at their lowest point during the 1970s and most of the 1980s.

  • Leeds man

    The US accounts for about 15-16% of world output. A dent in a dent. Not to say cutting down isn’t worth the effort, but it’s localized behaviour adaptation more than anything like a global fix, or even damage control.

    • In a global sense, these reductions aren’t significant in and of themselves. They are significant because they set us (and the rest of the world) up to make even greater decreases in the future.

      Think about the way most of Africa has skipped telephone landlines and gone straight to cell phones. Similarly, the lower-carbon patterns that we are embracing to replace our high-carbon patterns could mean that the developing world can skip the high-carbon stage.

      • Leeds man

        Your optimism is inspiring, if unconvincing. India, China, transportation and industry in general, do not bode well. Some of us think the time to panic has already passed, but I hope we’re wrong.

        • Oh, Leeds Man. Hang in there, buddy.

          It’s always a good time to panic.


  • Trollhattan

    Apparently, a limited water supply may have an impact on just how much new traditional power generation we can support. Have my doubts that especially China and India can accommodate increased water demands from the energy sector when both are already being hit hard by climate-change effects on their water supplies.

    If today’s policies remain in place, the IEA calculates that water consumed for energy production would increase from 66 billion cubic meters (bcm) today to 135 bcm annually by 2035.

    That’s an amount equal to the residential water use of every person in the United States over three years, or 90 days’ discharge of the Mississippi River. It would be four times the volume of the largest U.S. reservoir, Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead.

    More than half of that drain would be from coal-fired power plants and 30 percent attributable to biofuel production, in IEA’s view. The agency estimates oil and natural gas production together would account for 10 percent of global energy-related water demand in 2035.


    • I also agree that the long-term geopolitical and economic dominance of China and India is very sketchy because of climate change and ability to manage environmental issues.

  • guthrie

    Booming economy? By the time the USA returns to boom times for all there’ll probably be electric cars everywhere.
    (Of course charging them could be a bit harder, but I expect solar to help)

  • I’m more optimistic.

    First, we are investing heavily in wind and solar infrastructure. The US is the world leader in alternative energy investment. Over the long term, natural gas can only be looked at as a transition step while we get off of coal, but we are making the investments to ramp up alternatives over the next generation.

    Second, emissions keep falling as the economy recovers from the recession. It’s not as if emissions have only risen a little, or even stayed flat, while GDP expanded over the past few years. Total emissions continued to drop while GDP expanded.

    Similarly, the reduction in vehicle miles has not bounced back as the economy grew. I don’t know how much of that is cultural and how much is high gas prices, but there seems to have been some structural change.

    It’s China, and later, India that worry me. We actually seem to be on the right track.

    • Whoops, that was me.

    • Bill Murray

      I think China is the world leader in renewable energy investment which might not be the same area as you said


      • shah8


        1) “Renewables” is a broad category, with some elements that might be disagreeable. For example, Oil Palm investment. Other renewable investment are disguised nonrenewable investment for one reason or another.

        2) Both China and India are pursuing investment without a core infrastructure that supports renewable energy. In China, there are many projects for wind that aren’t hooked up because there hasn’t been the grid investment with wind (or any energy) in mind. Much solar investment in India is entirely focused on very local means and small scale purposes. There aren’t the kind of solar infrastructure being built to support factories, for example.

      • Leeds man

        Great, but.

        China says its emissions will keep rising until its per capita GDP is around five times its current rate, further dampening hopes that the world’s largest polluter will agree in principle to ambitious binding emission reduction targets at this month’s Doha Climate Change Summit.

      • I think the distinction is here, from your link: (a category that excludes small-scale projects and R&D)

        China is spending more on rolling out projects, but we spend more on R&D.

  • Joel Patterson

    Erik, cheap, plentiful natural gas means more leaks of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a worse greenhouse gas than CO2. And I think one study estimated that 9% of the natural gas drilled in the field just escapes into the atmosphere.

    • Joel Patterson

      Should have known nothing good would come of trusting T. Boone Pickens…

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