On U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Cognitive Dissonance

United States predicted to be world’s leading oil producer. Warning: Claiming lower carbon emissions while exporting fossil fuels can lead to cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance, according to Merriam-Webster, is “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.” Dustin Lynn, an admissions counselor at Vanderbilt University, writes that it is “the tension or even panic that one experiences upon receiving information that is counter to personally held thoughts, beliefs, or schemas.”

Sounds like a bit of a drag. And sadly, I wonder if we Americans suffer from a bit of CD as we come to grips with the “good news” about our nation’s surprising drop in greenhouse gas emissions.

Plummeting greenhouse gas emissions

On the surface, the drop looks like quite an achievement — in media parlance, it’s perhaps even the story of the century. Despite prognostications to the contrary, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are headed downward. How far down? In the first quarter of 2012, down to 1992 levels!

How did that happen? Certainly not as a result of a government policy like cap and trade or a carbon tax. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), three factors are responsible for the drop:

  • a mild winter,
  • reduced gasoline demand and
  • fuel-switching from coal to natural gas for electricity generation.

Let’s focus on the fuel switch.

Coal-fired power hits new lows

For decades, coal has fueled the major share of our electricity. (Click on graphic below to see how much.) But not anymore. Why? In a word: fracking.

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Everyone said it would be a game changer, and that is certainly proving to be the case in the electricity sector. Ever since fracking has opened up previously unreachable gas reserves (e.g., shale rock), natural gas prices have plummeted. So much so, that by becoming the fuel of choice for many power generators, it has left coal in the dust. For the time being anyway.

Between March 2011 and March 2012, coal generation of electricity decreased by 29 billion kilowatt hours. Over that same period, natural gas generation increased by almost the same amount — 27 billion kilowatt hours. That’s the fuel switch — not much change in total power generated but a major change in how it’s generated.

By April, coal and natural gas were tied, with both supplying 32 percent of net electricity generation.

Given how dirty coal is (all those TV ads for clean coal notwithstanding), it’s not surprising we’re witnessing a historic decline in U.S. greenhouse emissions. With a hearty pat on the back, we Americans can say we did it and without any of those nasty government regulations or that cap-and-trade nonsense. Right? Maybe not. You see there’s this little import/export issue to consider.

Coal exports hit new highs

With the rapid falloff in U.S. coal-generated electricity, one would think the coal industry would be really hurting. And it is, but probably not as much as you’d think. While the EIA projects that the coal consumption by the U.S. electric power sector will decrease in 2012 by about 12 percent relative to 2011, coal production will only decrease by about seven percent. Where is the extra coal going? Overseas, at least a good deal of it — EIA is projecting an almost 20 percent rise in U.S. net coal exports for this year.

And here’s the rub: to the extent that the coal we don’t burn here gets burned elsewhere, the savings in the U.S. emissions column are simply shifted to additional emissions in someplace else’s column. It’s what’s known as leakage in the lexicon of carbon-emissions accounting.

How much are we leaking?

A (non-peer-reviewed) report recently posted online by John Broderick and Kevin Anderson at the
 University of Manchester attempts to answer the leakage question.

The authors compared U.S. coal usage and exports from two multiyear periods — 2008–2011 and 2005–2007 — to capture the influence of booming shale gas production. Over the more recent period, U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions declined by about 6.3 percent, natural gas prices plunged by 55 percent, and U.S. total coal consumption declined by 10 percent. Over that same period, Broderick and Anderson report that net exports of coal nearly doubled: In 2008 we exported about 47 million short tons of coal (up from about 13 million short tons in 2006 — the lowest level since 1949), but by 2011 the amount had grown steadily to about 94 million short tons.

Broderick and Anderson’s calculations suggest that “more than half of the emissions avoided in the U.S. power sector [from 2008–2011] may have been exported as coal.”

Which begs the question: Who is responsible for those exported coal-related emissions? If the United States were to take ownership, our story of declining greenhouse gas emissions would be less rosy. Rather than the 6.3 percent drop noted above, discounting the emissions from the exported coal would put the U.S. energy-related emissions decline at about just 4.6 percent. And adding those emissions back in would raise 2011 energy-related emissions to about 5.625 billion metric tons — comparable to what we emitted in 1998, not 1992.

But I can hear the objections to such an accounting trick — just because we produced the coal doesn’t mean it should be charged to our emissions inventory. The exported coal is being used by other people; they should be responsible. OK, fair enough. But there’s another side to this story.

Inconvenient facts about our imports from China

The growth in Chinese emissions has provided exceptionally strong cover for the do-nothing-about-climate change crowd here at home. (See here and here.) Since China is now the world’s largest emitter with rapidly growing emissions, why, argue those who oppose U.S. action on climate change, should we puny-CO2-emitting Americans do anything given China’s CO2-emitting rapaciousness?

But there’s a flaw in that argument. One reason that China’s emissions have been growing so rapidly is that it’s selling so much stuff to other countries, especially us. It seems that we Americans (Chinese carbon emissions or no) just love to pay as little as possible for our stuff. And guess what comes along with the stuff we buy from China? Embedded carbon emissions — the emissions that were required to make the stuff in the first place.

A paper by Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway, and co-authors estimated that we imported as much as 400 million tons of CO2 in imported Chinese goods in 2008.

So, should we take responsibility for emissions embedded in the products we import from another country? “Poppycock,” was the polite if somewhat arcane response I got at a recent cocktail party discussion with my friendly neighborhood climate denier. “Their jobs, their profits, and so their emissions.”

And that’s where the cognitive dissonance comes in. It seems to me that you can’t logically assign the carbon emissions from exported coal to other countries while not taking responsibility for the emissions of the products we import.

America: want to rid yourself of that dissonance? You’re going to have to do something a little more fundamental on the climate front than sending our greenhouse emissions overseas. Something to ponder in light of the International Energy Agency’s recent prediction that the United States is poised to be the next Saudi Arabia of oil production.