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American Carbon Emissions Fall Again - But to What End?
American Carbon Emissions Fall Again - But to What End?

This article originally ran on Forbes.com on November 28, 2023. All rights reserved.

Daniel B. Markind is a Forbes.com energy column contributor. The views expressed in this article are not to be associated with the views of Flaster Greenberg PC.

Two recent studies show that, by the end of 2023, United States carbon emissions will decrease, despite an expansion in the overall economy of about 2.5 percent.  That is, according to the United States Energy Information Administration, US energy-related emissions are set to fall 3 percent this year, driven mostly by lower coal consumption (Source). This drop follows two years in which carbon emissions, which had already fallen significantly over the previous decade, first increased following the COVID-19 pandemic and then held flat in 2022.  However, this anticipated decrease will likely not be sufficient for the United States to meet its commitments under the 2015 Paris climate accord (Source).

Specifically, in order for the United States to meet those commitments, it will need to reduce  its carbon emissions by 50 percent by the end of the decade from the level of those emissions in 2015.  To carry that out would require a 6% annual drop in United States carbon emissions each year through 2030 which, again, is not likely to be achieved.  Still, the expected decrease is significant, and would be one of the largest in the world, assuming it does occur.

Interestingly, the largest contributor to the decrease has not been any increase in renewables.  Rather, it is the replacement of natural gas for coal.  That is, in 2023, natural gas production will rise 8 percent over 2022 and could account for 42% of power generation overall (Source).

The importance of natural gas in carbon reduction and the need to simply keep the lights on raise serious questions about American and world strategy in fighting climate change.  This goes hand in hand with continuing valid concerns over the expected reliability of intermittent renewables, such as solar and wind.  To that effect, on November 20, the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) announced that it would postpone the retirement of four floating natural gas-fired power plants for two years in order to maintain the reliability of the power supply to New York City (Source). The four plants, owned by Astoria Generating Co., will add 505 megawatts (MW) to New York City’s power reserves, which otherwise would have a deficit of 446 MW.

This all comes about as the world heads into another winter, reeling from wars in Ukraine and Gaza, and dealing with whole industries such as transportation racing furiously into a future where “electrification” is the goal.  However, as should have been expected, those desires are running  into various interlocking scientific and political realities.  For electric powered automobiles, the continuing issues of charging and supply have forced major companies in the industry to rethink their approach.  For example, in May, Ford Motor Company announced that it was losing $3 billion from lower than predicted EV sales, which is as much as the previous two years combined (Source).

In contrast, Toyota has recently announced that it expects its electric cars, which are powered by solid-state batteries, to have a range of 1,200km (750 miles) — more than twice the range of its current EVs — and a charging time of 10 minutes or less, although notably Toyota has not announced exactly when it expects such vehicles to actually be available (Source). Nor is it apparent whether any other vehicle manufacturers are as far along as Toyota claims to be. 

Meanwhile, in the aviation world, airports are racing ahead with electrification plans and are contemplating developing microgrids, but are also facing the same reliability of supply issues that have bedeviled other industries.  Electric airplane manufacturers, conversely, have to deal with the prospect that the batteries that would be needed to power the airplanes are so heavy that, in order to retain enough power for long distance flight, it would increase the weight of the aircraft to a point where long distance electric flight continues to be scientifically problematic.  While the market for electric airplanes is expected to increase as science progresses, (Source), basic challenges remain to be resolved.

The next few months will be telling.  Can we continue to decrease carbon emissions while maintaining the overall reliability and efficiency of our energy supply?  Or are we handling our energy transition – with its heavy focus on renewables and assumptions and plans that have not fully caught up to our goals – in the wrong way?  In short, are we simply wasting billions of dollars and much time on schemes that in the end will turn out to be ineffective? 

As the winter of 2024 approaches, with the world in chaos and the energy supply in transition, we all must face the prospect that it is possible we will have to adjust our energy strategy – perhaps more than once – over the next few years.  This could mean that we eventually are compelled to admit that we have wasted billions of dollars and years of time going in directions that were not destined to be viable in the long run.  If we are required to reach such a determination, this would be a bitter pill to swallow, but it would be better to swallow our losses and adjust course to something that is logistically, scientifically, economically, and politically attainable.  Just plowing ahead with an approach for carbon reduction that sounds good, but in the real world simply may not work, ends up helping nobody.

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