We've known for a long time coal plants are responsible for a significant amount of carbon emissions. And, last year, we reported on the Trump administration's proposed legal changes that would allow coal plants to release even more carbon into the atmosphere.
To catch you up: The Trump administration planned to replace the Obama admin's Clean Power Plan – designed to lower the country's carbon footprint – with a newer, less stringent version. And the resulting increase in emissions would lead to 1,400 more deaths a year, thanks to breathing and heart problems caused by pollution.
But coal plants aren't the only problem the U.S. faces in fighting climate change. And, in fact, a new report released by the Rhodium Group (an economic research institution) found that carbon emissions went up by a massive 3.4 percent in 2018 – even though several coal plants closed down.
That's the second biggest annual increase in more than 20 years, and a reversal in trend from the past few years (2015 saw carbon emissions go down 2.7 percent, for example).
So What's Causing the Increase in Emissions?
While coal plants are responsible for carbon emissions, they're not the only industry contributing to the country's carbon footprint. In fact, fossil fuel emissions have been going down over time, with a sustained downward trend starting in 2005, the New York Times reports.
The problem? While coal emissions are going down, emissions from other parts of the economy are going up, and the decrease in fossil fuel emissions can't offset the difference.
Part of the increase comes from a boost in emissions from natural gas, the Rhodium Group explains. Not only did Americans switch from coal to natural gas for energy (partly accounting for that increased), but the U.S. used more gas overall – for example, for heating during extreme cold weather last winter.
Some of the emissions are also related to travel. While the amount of gasoline Americans used stayed pretty consistent (there was only a 0.1 percent difference from 2017 to 2018), the U.S. flew more – and, therefore, used up more jet fuel. Transport trucks use also went up in 2018, boosting the demand for diesel fuel by 3 percent.
Plus, the industrial sector – manufacturers and factories – was more active in 2018, boosting overall emissions.
What Does This Mean for the Fight Against Climate Change?
Well, it's not good news! As the United Nations reported last year, the world has just 12 years to prevent a global climate disaster (think extreme weather events, mass extinctions and major flooding). To do that, we'd have to cut carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030, the report said.
A 3.4 percent increase isn't just a failure to stay on track for the 45 percent goal – it's a step in the complete wrong direction.
About the Author
Sylvie Tremblay holds a Master of Science in molecular and cellular biology and has years of experience as a cancer researcher and neuroscientist. Before launching her writing business, she worked as a TA and tutored students in biology, chemistry, math and physics.