Reducing Greenhouse Gases the Dismal Way

If the United States announced that it planned to cap greenhouse gases at 2005 levels, chances are that everyone would suddenly start arguing. Some would say the goal wasn’t ambitious enough, while others would argue that it would mean economic disaster. But if we just bumbled into it by some unexpected stroke of fate? Would we deserve any credit? Would anyone even notice?

If you look at the statistics, the United States has been slashing greenhouse emissions like a green tornado. The Energy Department says carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. fell 3 percent in 2008 and by 7 percent in 2009. What’s more, the government estimates U.S. carbon emissions won’t get back to 2005 levels again until 2027 – 16 years from now.

That’s faster than anything the government has proposed doing in the past. That’s quicker than we would have seen reductions if we’d ratified a new international treaty or passed a cap-and-trade plan.

The problem is that rather than doing it by pursuing a strong, well-thought-out clean energy policy, we’ve done it a different way: by driving the U.S. economy into a ditch.

This is what the Great Recession means for the environment. When the economy tanks, more people are unemployed, which means they buy less, commute less and generally do less of all the things that produce greenhouse gases. Energy use drops, and so do carbon emissions.

We’re not the only country where this is happening – carbon emissions in Europe dropped 2 percent in 2008 because of the recession. In fact, if you look at it historically, there are some dramatic examples. During the 1990s, Russia and Ukraine saw average annual emission drops of 3.9 percent and 6.3 percent, respectively. Unfortunately the main reason is that after the fall of the Soviet Union their economies totally tanked for the decade. Inefficient, smoke-belching Soviet-era factories were shut down because they couldn’t compete, and people started emigrating elsewhere. (Fewer people also means less greenhouse gases).

Of course, you’d have to be Pollyanna on Prozac to claim this is a good plan. Foreclosures, reckless Wall Street trading and 10 percent unemployment are a wretched price to pay for anything.

Have we been doing anything right here? Yes, actually. The fact that we’re making solid gains in energy efficiency and shifting to lower-carbon energy options are why carbon emissions aren’t bouncing back faster. The long-term changes we’ve started are why we’re not going to get back to 2005 emissions levels for another 16 years, even after the economy recovers.

Most scientists say, of course, that we’re going to have to do better than this if we’re going to have any chance of limiting climate change. The Obama administration has set a goal of a 17 percent cut in greenhouse gases by 2020, and we’re not on track to make that. The International Energy Agency, looking at the boom economies in places like China and India, warns that the global goal of limiting rising temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius can only happen with “vigorous implementation” of “a far-reaching transformation of the global energy system.” And that’s not really happening, either.

In some ways, we’re like someone who wants to lose weight, and unexpectedly does so by getting the flu. You have a choice once you’ve recovered. You can use the unexpected weight loss as a step up—one puts you closer to your goal. Or you can immediately revert back to the tacos and beer and see the weight come right back on.

So now we have a choice. The challenge is what it’s always been: how do we get the energy we need for a prosperous economy without doing irreparable damage to the planet? Given what’s happened to emissions because of the recession, the goal isn’t quite as overwhelming as it once was. Now we can either turn this into an opportunity and build on it, or just backslide into the same old, same old.

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet