After a five-year decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise again. The culprit: a rebounding economy.
CO2 emissions from fossil fuels rose 2.39 percent in 2013 compared with 2012 and grew 7.45 percent for the first two months of 2014 compared with the same period in 2013, according to new data released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The jump puts an end to the annual decrease that had occurred from 2008 through 2012.
Energy analysts say the increase in CO2 emissions was expected due to factors such as population growth and the increased proliferation of power-hungry technologies such as smartphones and tablets, and that it was the prior decrease that was out of place. “The main factor was the recession,” says Ken Bossong, executive director of the SUN DAY Campaign, a nonprofit research and educational organization that promotes sustainable energy technologies.
The recession of the late 2000s fostered a period of decreased emissions, Bossong says, because many businesses decreased or stopped production, reducing their fossil-fuel based energy consumption.
In addition to the recession, CO2 emissions eased from 2008 to 2012 because of improvements in overall energy efficiency and the rise of renewable energy sources in the electricity sector, along with increased consumption of natural gas rather than coal, which results in less CO2, according to Yanna Antypas, an energy/environment modeler and analyst for the EIA. Bossong says, however, those were most likely small factors when compared with the overall environmental effects of the recession.
All five sectors that consume fossil fuel—residential, commercial, industrial, transportation and electric power—experienced increases in 2013 and early 2014. The residential sector had the biggest increase whereas transportation had the smallest, due to the expanded use of biofuels in place of petroleum, Antypas says.

Credit: Kevin Schultz

Pres. Barack Obama’s proposal to address global warming by restricting U.S. power plant emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 is one attempt to counter the new rise. Bossong notes that the regulations will only limit emissions in the electricity sector, however, and that the new rules will have to withstand major legal and political challenges.
The EIA predicts a relatively small increase in CO2 emissions for the U.S. in the near future, even without the help of the new power plant limits. The agency’s Annual Energy Outlook 2014 projects slow growth through 2020, about a 1 percent overall increase. Of course, as Antypas says, “every outlook and every forecast is somewhat uncertain” and is based on current laws, regulations and technological advancements.
Bossong sees the CO2 emission levels plateauing after a year or two and then beginning another phase of reduction, due to innovation in energy efficiency in products such as appliances and cars. Even if Obama’s measure pans out, he says many estimates only show a total of about a 7 percent decrease by 2030 from 2014. Yet, if the proposal is successful, he believes that people will see how readily CO2 can be reduced, which will influence innovation in emission reduction in many other sectors. That could help significantly reduce discharges by the same 2030 date. “The first-ever proposed rule limiting carbon dioxide pollution from existing power plants is not happening a minute too soon, and much more needs to follow,” he notes.