Climate crisis: US emissions have biggest drop since Second World War in 2020 but the toll has been ‘enormous’

Overall emissions decreased by 10.3 per cent, according to preliminary estimates from Rhodium research group, putting GHG emissions below 1990 levels for the first time, due to the “historic shock” of the  Covid-19 pandemic.

The decline overtook the impact of the 2009 recession, which saw emissions drop by a little over 6 per cent in the US. But although it may first appear good news in tackling the climate crisis, there is little cause for celebration.

“The emission reductions of 2020 have come with an enormous toll of significant economic damage and human suffering,” Rhodium wrote.

More than 22 million people have been infected with the coronavirus in the US and the death toll continues to rise across the country. More than 375,000 people have died, according to the CDC.

It was in the transportation sector where the emissions drop was most significant, according to the findings.

Emissions fell by 15 per cent over 2019 levels, largely due to stay-at home orders, increased numbers of people working from home, and industry slowdown.

Bans on international travel and some states’ restrictions on non-essential journeys saw demand for fuel fall.

During the height of lockdowns last year, jet fuel use was down 68 per cent, and petrol use dropped 40 per cent compared to 2019. Diesel, the main fuel source in shipping and trucking, was down 18 per cent.

Jet fuel demand has recovered somewhat but not entirely – it was still 35 per cent below 2019 levels in December, Rhodium reported. Diesel, likely increasing due to holiday deliveries, returned to near 2019 levels the same month.

The electric power sector, which makes up 28 per cent of net US emissions, dropped 10.3 per cent below 2019 levels despite demand for electricity remained fairly stable , down just 2 per cent.

“This was driven almost exclusively from the continued rapid decline of coal-fired power generation,” the report notes.

Rhodium projected in July that emission levels in the power sector would drop as much as 7 per cent in 2020 – before the pandemic hit. 

The momentum behind coal’s decline has only accelerated by weakened electric power demand over the past 12 months. Coal, which once largely powered the US electric system, is now third after natural gas and nuclear. 

Renewables have grown their share of the market to 18 per cent, catching up on coal, which has 20 per cent of the market.

Under the Paris Climate Accord in 2015, the US had promised to cut emissions by 26-28 per cent from its yardstick 2005 levels. 

“With emissions down 21 per cent below 2005 levels, this means the US is expected to far exceed its 2020 Copenhagen Accord target of a 17 per cent reduction below 2005 levels,” Rhodium noted.

However, Rhodium warns that 2020 should not be thought of as a “down payment” on Paris goals due to the significant economic and human toll it took to get here.

With the Covid vaccines being rolled out economic activity is expected to pick up and, with that, emissions are likely to rebound too.

Leave a Comment