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The Decline of CO2 Levels: Should We Be Encouraged?


On October 21, the U.S. Energy Information Administration released their annual report on carbon dioxide emission levels in the United States. At first glance, it seems we are trending in the right direction. According to the report, U.S. emissions have fallen to the lowest levels since 1994, 12% below the peak in 2007, and energy related carbon dioxide emissions have declined 5 out of the past 7 years. Furthermore, standards that generally correlated with emissions growth – GDP, per capita output, and population growth – all rose despite the decline of CO2 emissions.
The obvious question is why? Have Al Gore and friends finally altered America’s course towards renewable energy? Can we sit back and watch as technology steadily improves (Thanks, electric cars!) and never give another thought to global warming?

Probably not. If we examine the reasons for declining emissions, all this apparently encouraging data actually indicates bad days ahead. Firstly, residential sector energy use dropped significantly due to a relatively warm winter that lasted through January. As winters continue to get milder, because of global warming, society needs to recognize the importance of environmental awareness more, not be lulled into a false sense of security. In fact, there was a 7% increase in cooling demanding days (days on which people tend to use air conditioners) but because heating produces more CO2 than air conditioning the decrease in heat demanding days was both larger and more significant and hid this increase. In addition, as U.S. factories continue to outsource jobs overseas, restricting our measurements of energy usage to the U.S. is shortsighted.
But there are signs of progress. Vehicle energy usage accounted for 22% of the total energy decline, but miles traveled were flat compared to previous years, indicating that the use of energy efficient cars is at a tipping point. Natural gas is increasingly being used in power generation, while coal usage dramatically decreased. While environmentalists argue that we need to complete the shift to wind, solar, nuclear, and hydro-generated power, we are at least headed in the right direction.
What do you think? Are you encouraged or alarmed by this report? What changes can we make to further improve our environmental outlook? Let me know, and I’ll include your perspectives in a future post.