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U.S. emissions plummet to lowest levels in post-World War II era

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Sandy Nunez | 14 January, 2021, 23:15

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A preliminary assessment from research group Rhodium says that overall emissions were down over 10%, the largest fall since World War II.

Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries, and last year's decline is little more than a blip on the graph.

According to the Rhodium Group, even if the pandemic had not occurred and economic activities were at full throttle, USA emissions would have declined by around 3% during 2020, mainly driven by the decline of coal-fired power generation and in part by a reduction in heating demand due to warmer winter weather.

After decades of dominance, coal in 2020 was the third largest source of power, behind natural gas and nuclear.

Then, the coronavirus arrived.

The overall fall of 10.3% essentially dwarves the impact of the great economic recession of 2009 on the United States, when emissions were down 6.3%.

The transportation sector, for instance, saw a decline of 14.7% in emissions largely because people stopped traveling.

The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere actually surged to a new record high a year ago, the World Meteorological Organization said in November.

Emissions from industrial activities were down 7% in 2020 compared to 2019, also because of the major slowdown in the economy. Between April and March, emissions fell 16%, the researchers noted.

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Emissions from the U.S. energy sector declined by 10.3% in 2020. As electricity demand sagged nationwide, utilities ran their coal plants far less often because coal has become the most expensive fuel in many parts of the country.

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases trap solar radiation in the atmosphere, just like the glass traps heat in a greenhouse. The United States produced roughly as much electricity from renewable sources a year ago as it did from coal, a milestone that has never been reached before.

President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to rejoin the accords after Donald Trump removed the U.S. from the Paris deal.

The drop indicates that the United States would outperform its pledge made under the Copenhagen climate agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. Emissions will actually drop by 21.5 percent compared with 2005.

But that milestone comes with several caveats. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation plunged by 14.7% previous year, compared to 2019. They attributed this to behavioral changes associated with the pandemic and warned emissions would go back to their usual growing path this year unless policymakers act.

The other potential problem is that the USA emissions could go back up once vaccines are massively distributed and the economy recovers.

A report released by the Rhodium Group on Tuesday shed light on how coronavirus impacted the United States economy. Some sectors such as air travel and steel production are already rebounding in the US.

"With coronavirus vaccines now in distribution, we expect economic activity to pick up again in 2021, but without meaningful structural changes in the carbon intensity of the U.S. economy, emissions will likely rise again as well", the report said.

And those efforts would need to be replicated across the globe. "That calls for decisive action this year, next year and indeed every year to 2050".