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US fracking pushes CO2 emissions almost to 1990 levels – even before Corona

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The US climate footprint is benefiting from fracking, which has significantly depressed the price of natural gas. This cheap natural gas is increasingly displacing coal from electricity production, which leads to lower CO2 emissions. In addition, there are subsidies for renewable energy sources and the falling energy intensity of the US economy. Last year, before the coronavirus pandemic, the US’s energy-related CO2 emissions fell by 2.8% or 150 million tons to 5,130 tons – despite significantly higher economic growth.

This means that the energy-related CO2 emissions are only 1.8% above the level of 1990 (5,040 million tons) and slightly below the level of 2017. This emerges from the report by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). In 2018 there was a weather-related increase in emissions because more heating and cooling were required. In 2019, the heating consumption was not, but the cooling consumption was lower. However, the long-term trends are more important.

The year 1990 is often used as the basis for calculating comparisons and setting goals. In the USA it can be seen that the economy has become more and more energy efficient over the past 30 years (energy / GDP). This is partly due to actual efficiency gains, partly to less activity in agriculture and production with the increasing importance of services.

In the USA, energy-related CO2 emissions were lower in 1991 than in 1990, but in principle emissions rose by an average of 1% per year from 1990 to 2007 – in step with the population growth. In 2008 the US economy fell into recession, and since then CO2 emissions have been decoupled from population growth.

In 2019, however, the lower population growth of only 0.5% also helped. In the previous decade, the population had grown by an average of 0.9% annually. If it had grown so strongly in 2019, CO2 emissions would have been 24 million tons higher.

In 2010 the US economy began to recover, but its energy consumption has been less CO2 intensive since then. And that is primarily due to natural gas, which thanks to fracking has been able to compete with coal. Natural gas is now just as important for US electricity production as all CO2-free sources combined (nuclear energy, water, sun, wind, biomass, etc.), namely 38% each. Coal fell from 53% (1990) and 49% (2007) to 23% (2019).

Accordingly, energy-related CO2 emissions from coal have fallen by more than half since 2007. In 2019 there was a particularly sharp decline of 15%. In the period since 2007, emissions from petroleum and other liquid energy sources have fallen by 8.5%. Naturally, emissions from natural gas have increased, by 35.6% since 2007. This is mainly due to the shift in electricity production away from coal and towards natural gas.

The EIA report highlights regulations (especially at the state level) and subsidies (especially at the federal level) in favor of renewable energy as the second reason for the lower CO2 intensity of electricity. As a result, solar and wind power together now contribute half more to the US-wide electricity mix than hydropower. Of course, the lower CO2 intensity of the electricity mix also helps private households to lower emissions.

The CO2 emissions from transport fell by 0.7% in 2019. The development of CO2 traffic-related emissions fluctuates over the years. Since 2007 there has been an average decrease of 0.5% per year.


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