America’s greenhouse gas emissions fell 1.9 percent in 2023, in large part because the burning of coal to produce electricity plummeted to its lowest level in half a century, according to estimates published on Wednesday by the Rhodium Group, a nonpartisan research firm.
The drop means that United States emissions have now fallen roughly 17.2 percent since 2005. There was a huge, anomalous dip in planet-warming pollution at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when large segments of the economy shut down, followed by a sharp rebound in the following two years once activity resumed. But over the longer term, America’s emissions have been trending downward as power plants and cars have gotten cleaner.
Still, the decline in emissions to date hasn’t been nearly steep enough to meet the nation’s goals for trying to slow global warming. President Biden wants to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. To hit that goal, annual emissions would have to fall more than three times as fast for the rest of the decade as they did last year, the report found.
The researchers looked at planet-warming emissions generated by transportation, electricity, industry and buildings but did not include pollution from agriculture, which accounts for roughly 10 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gases.
To speed action on climate change, Congress in 2022 approved a record amount of federal money for low-emissions technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear reactors, electric vehicles and hydrogen fuels.
But the full impact of those investments on emissions has yet to be seen, since many companies are only starting to ramp up investments in clean energy.
“In the coming years, we’d expect to start seeing surges in renewable energy deployment and surges in the number of electric vehicles on the road,” said Ben King, an associate director at the Rhodium Group and an author of the new report. “The big question is how fast emissions will fall as a result.”
The main reason emissions fell last year was that carbon dioxide pollution from America’s fleet of power plants dropped roughly 8 percent. Electric utilities closed more than a dozen large power plants that burned coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, replacing them with cheaper and lower-emitting natural gas, wind and solar power.
That’s a trend that has been underway since the fracking boom of the mid-2000s made natural gas plentiful and relatively inexpensive. While coal plants once generated nearly half of America’s electricity, they produced just 17 percent last year, a lower share than either nuclear or renewable energy, the report said. The use of coal for electricity dropped to its lowest level since 1969.
By contrast, the use of natural gas for electricity soared to record highs as a series of scorching summer heat waves spurred utilities to run their gas plants more often to meet heavy demand for air-conditioning. Renewable electricity generation increased by a smaller amount: While the solar industry enjoyed a record year for installations, wind companies erected significantly fewer new turbines than they did in 2022.
Transportation, the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gases, saw a 1.6 percent rise in emissions in 2023. Gasoline and jet fuel consumption both increased as Americans continued to drive and fly more after the pandemic. U.S. sales of electric vehicles passed the one million mark in 2023, but they still make up a relatively small fraction of vehicles on the road and have yet to put a major dent in road emissions.
Emissions from the industrial sector increased roughly 1.2 percent last year, in part because of methane leaks from drilling operations. The United States produced record amounts of oil and natural gas in 2023, and some of the excess gas that wasn’t sold for fuel was either leaked or intentionally vented into the atmosphere as methane. Methane only lingers in the atmosphere for about a decade before breaking down, but it is about 80 times as powerful in the short term at trapping heat as carbon dioxide.
The Biden administration has made cutting methane emissions a major priority. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a regulation that would, for the first time, require oil and gas producers to detect and fix leaks of methane from hundreds of thousands of existing wells. And on Friday, the Department of Energy announced a conditional $189 million loan guarantee to LongPath Technologies, which plans to mount lasers on giant towers to monitor methane leaks at oil and gas fields across the country.
The United States is one of 26 countries around the world that have seen emissions decline in recent years even as they enjoy significant economic growth, a study last year found. That list also includes Brazil, Britain, Japan, much of the European Union and South Africa.
But globally, carbon dioxide emissions still soared to record levels last year, driven in large part by an increase in fossil fuel use in China, India and other fast-growing countries.