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U.S. is Decoupling Carbon from Economic Growth, But Details Are Complicated

digifly840 / Pixabay
digifly840 / Pixabay

A Brookings Institution study has shed light on the extent to which economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions are decoupling across the United States. The good news is that 33 states plus the District of Columbia saw their economies grow 22% while their emissions fell 12% between 2000 and 2014, Greentech Media reports. But the longer story is more complicated.

“Emissions decoupling has clearly become more frequent amid the ongoing large-scale switch from coal to natural gas—driven by the hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) boom,” wrote report co-authors Devashree Saha and Mark Muro. “At the same time, numerous other factors are clearly influencing outcomes, ranging from changes in the structure and growth of the national economy, to investment decisions and technology change, to land use change and the availability of clean new energy resources, including renewables.”

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But while Saha, a senior policy associate at Brookings, said the results give “licence for a modest degree of optimism,” the results actually tell a mixed story, notes Greentech Media Editor-in-Chief Stephen Lacey.

Replacing coal with natural gas is great for public health, but not a clear win for climate when it isn’t clear how much climate-busting methane is being released into the atmosphere as a result.

The shift from manufacturing to service jobs is reducing America’s carbon footprint. But “almost every service-sector job—from cashier to truck driver—is under threat from automation and artificial intelligence,” Lacey writes. “The steady march of technological progress will help states decarbonize while improving output, but that may spell doom for yet another class of workers.”

(Moreover, offshoring manufacturing doesn’t reduce global emissions if the goods are still produced. It just shifts the burden from one national carbon inventory to another one, and likely increases emissions from international shipping.)

As for wind and solar, Brookings sees them “playing a surprisingly small role so far,” Lacey reports.

“Wind and solar generation have yet to register as broad an impact on decoupling as might be expected—even in the green West,” Saha and Muro state. “While solar and wind’s share of electricity generation has been on the rise, [their] large-scale growth in some states dates only to the last decade, and so this analysis does not find a strong statistical relationship between states’ emissions reductions and solar and wind’s share of power generation.”

While the U.S. is on track to reduce its carbon emissions by 2.1% per year—at least until President-elect Donald Trump takes office—“it will need to achieve a rate of 3.5% a year to meet international targets,” Lacey writes. And ‘there are 20 states that haven’t even hit the 2% decarbonization rate.”

While Saha and Muro are concerned about the prospect of “federal chaos” in the years ahead, their report holds out hope for America under Trump, Greentech notes.

“Local factors (not just federal ones) matter a lot to how this happens,” they write. “Moreover, the trends depicted here suggest that while federal policy reversals could be traumatic, progress on decarbonizing the nation’s economy will likely continue regardless of Donald Trump, driven by technology advances, market dynamics, and state policy.”