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U.S. GHG Emissions on Track for ‘Biggest Drop on Record’

The United States is on track to exceed the emissions pathway targeted by the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, thanks to green(er) transformations in the country’s power sector coupled with pandemic-driven declines in transportation. It’s a deep enough drop in emissions to put the country’s Paris Agreement targets back within reach, according to new analysis by BloombergNEF.

“This year’s numbers are on track to be 9.2% lower than in 2019—the biggest drop on record,” writes BNN Bloomberg. “U.S. greenhouse gas emissions haven’t been so low since 1983, BNEF estimates, when the U.S. economy wasn’t quite 40% of its current size.”

Along with the greening of the power sector, pandemic lockdowns played a large role in the lower numbers. But while emissions are “likely” to bounce back in 2021, they will “still be lower than any year since 1990,” Bloomberg adds.

The transportation sector has also been critical in the emissions drop: “Now the biggest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, [transportation] has taken its biggest year-on-year hit ever.”

Bloomberg adds that “power and industry combined are only a slightly bigger contribution to the decline than transport on its own, while the commercial and residential sectors together account for less than 10% of the decline.” Transport and power sector emissions are expected to come roaring back up in 2021, and industrial emissions will likewise rise, though not as much.

As for where the United States stands on its Paris Agreement targets (which it will need to adopt and improve on once President-elect Joe Biden brings the country back into the global deal), the power sector will play a major role. “U.S. emissions from the transport, industrial, residential, commercial, and agriculture sectors aren’t on track to meet the Paris commitment of keeping global temperature rise below 2°C,” Bloomberg says. “Combine them with the power sector, though, and this year at least, the country is just about on the right path.”

The question is whether the U.S. can stay on this lower emissions path as the country recovers from the pandemic and “normalcy” resumes. “Trickier, but certainly not impossible,” predicts Bloomberg.

There is one wild card, however: the western U.S. exploding again in flames, as it has done on a regular basis in recent years. “This year, U.S. forest fires will emit enough greenhouse gases to offset the entire decline in power sector emissions,” warns Bloomberg. “Further efforts to reduce emissions—by means other than a pandemic—will require policies directed to specific sectors.”

Which means that “meeting Paris means making a choice: double down on the successes in reducing power sector emissions, or set specific emissions goals everywhere else.” [Or, presumably, both—Ed.]