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The US is winning the climate fight in electricity — and losing it just about everywhere else

Wind and solar are great, but other sectors require other solutions.

coking
Solar can’t do this yet.
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Late last month, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) released its final data on US carbon emissions for 2017. The analysts at Rhodium Group used that data to make some nice charts, and I’m going to use those charts to make a brief, simple point, something well-understood by energy experts but not yet by the general public.

To wit: The US electricity sector is no longer the top emitter in the US economy. Electricity decarbonization is underway. In many ways, it is proving the easiest lift in climate policy. It is time for climate hawks to think about how to spread decarbonization to other sectors.

Renewables are decarbonizing electricity

Over time, the climate movement has come to be identified with renewable energy, for obvious reasons. Wind and solar power are wildly popular, across demographics and regions. They are getting cheaper every day. With this company or that city going “100 percent renewable,” new records being broken, and a relentlessly positive trajectory, wind and solar make for great headlines.

And sure enough, in 2017, the US continued on that trajectory, with fossil fuel generation declining, coal retiring, and big growth in renewables:

RHG

There’s a long way to go — together, wind and solar account for about 10 percent of US power generation — but renewable energy is popular, supported by multiple public policies, and declining in cost. It has momentum.

However, the close association of renewables with climate progress threatens to cast an unduly rosy glow on US trends.

Emissions in other energy-related sectors are rising

The unfortunate truth is that the power sector is the only sector of the US economy in which emissions fell from 2016 to 2017. In other sectors, recent downward trends were reversed and emissions are now rising.

RHG

Power sector emissions continue to decline, but because emissions in other sectors are rising, total energy-related emissions in the US fell by only 0.66 percent in 2016-2017 — half their average annual 1.3 percent decline between 2005 and 2016. The lack of progress in other sectors is threatening to ground out progress in electricity.

Electricity is no longer the top emitter in the US economy

Thanks to coal, the US power sector was the top carbon emitter in the US economy for decades. But stagnant power demand, coupled with coal being steadily replaced by natural gas and renewables, has meant its emissions are declining.

Meanwhile, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the US are back on the upswing after a post-2008 lull and cheap gas means Americans are once again favoring trucks and SUVs.

Consequently, as of a couple years ago, the two lines crossed, and transportation has now cemented its lead as the new top emitter.

RHG

And get this. It wasn’t gasoline emissions from passenger vehicles that pushed transportation emissions up. In fact, they were down a bit year-on-year (though the decline is slowing). What rose were emissions from diesel (i.e., trucking) and jet fuel (i.e., commercial air travel).

RHG

The increase in aviation emissions alone, Rhodium writes, “offset 40 percent of the decline in coal-related emissions last year.”

Finally, industrial emissions are up as well, including the use of high-temperature coal, up for the first time in five years.

RHG

“Barring a significant change in policy or macroeconomic conditions,” Rhodium writes, “we expect the industrial sector to overtake the power sector as the second leading source of US GHG emissions within the next decade.”

Policy and advocacy have worked for electricity, but their focus must expand

What to make of all this?

The fact is that emissions in many energy-related sectors rise and fall with economic conditions. Insofar as there are carbon policies in place, the signal is not discernible amidst the economic noise.

In electricity, emissions are falling despite broader economic growth — the signal is discernible — but even there, where climate policy’s greatest victories have been won, at least half the work of decarbonization has been done by natural gas.

It follows that climate policy will have to grow much stronger across the board to meet long-term US climate goals.

But within the climate community — not only activists, but analysts and journalists (I am guilty) — the focus remains disproportionately on electricity, on wind, solar, batteries, and EVs, all the sexy stuff.

With so much momentum behind electricity decarbonization, foresight suggests shifting at least a little of that focus to the thorny problems of driving, flying, trucking, heating, smelting, coking, and other less sexy, more stubborn energy applications. If US emissions are to be zeroed out by mid-century, those problems will be upon us quickly.

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