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Climate crisis| Climate crisis

Climate crisis| Climate crisis

New figures show that in 2021, the United States saw a surge in planet-heating emissions. This shattered hopes that the pandemic would be a turning point in greening American society to address climate change.

Millions of people began working from home after the 2020 pandemic. Car and plane travel fell and industrial output was slowed. This caused a sharp drop of greenhouse gas emissions and led to predictions that an American economy would emerge to banish the era fossil fuels.

These predictions may have been wrong, but new research shows that US emissions increased by 6.2% last fiscal year compared to 2020. Although emissions were still 5% lower than in 2019, the rise in pollution as people returned back to old rhythms of life was higher than last year’s overall economic growth.

Line chart of US emission by major sectors, 2005-2021 projections All sectors, including power, transportation, and buildings, saw an increase in emissions.

We expected a rebound, but we were surprised that emissions came back faster than the economy, said Kate Larsen of Rhodium Group. This independent research firm is based in London. The analysis was done. We are not just reducing carbon intensity, but also increasing it. We are doing the exact opposite of what is needed.

The 2021 emissions spike was largely due an increase in cars, trucks, and other vehicles. There was a 10% increase in transportation emission from a year ago as Americans and their goods began moving again, fueled by optimism and the introduction of vaccines.

Coal, one of the most polluting fossil fuels, saw its use in power generation see a 17% increase over 2020. The increase in emissions from industrial processes was 6.6% last year. However, the slight increase in emissions from buildings usage was slightly less.

Since 2005, US emissions have been steadily declining. This is primarily due to market conditions that have made it less competitive for coal and made gas, a more polluting fossil fuel, more attractive to utilities as a cheaper and more abundant alternative.

Despite warnings from climate scientists for more than 30 years and a growing number of severe wildfires, floods, and heatwaves, the US still has not passed any national legislation that addresses the climate crisis. Larsen stated that it is crucial for Congress to pass climate measures within the Build Back Better spending bill. This bill has been stalled due to Senator Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat who hails from West Virginia and has deep ties with the coal industry.

Larsen said that there was hope that the pandemic would bring about widespread changes. But, we aren’t seeing that happen across the board. We must decarbonize the economy, not just rely on individual behavior changing.

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It is concerning that we rely on the oil and gas market for lower emissions. Even more concerning, we have not passed all the laws and rules we need. It was always going that the US would face a steep uphill battle, and now it is even more difficult.

Line chart showing net US carbon emissions in comparison to international climate targets. The 2021 increase in emissions is higher than the target range.

The US has fallen behind in meeting the international climate agreements targets. This is due to the US’s 2021 emissions increase. The deal stipulates that countries must keep the global temperature increase below 1.5C (pre-industrial levels), a level scientists warn could have dire consequences for the world.

If we want to keep warming below 1.5C, then we must get below the peak. In fact, we need to get halfway down to zero within this decade.

Cop26 was a step forward, but there must be more. For the US to do its part, it is essential that the climate provisions of Build back Better are passed by Congress as soon as possible.

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