According to data released by the U.S. Department of Energy, carbon emissions from power generating plants in the United States fell by five percent last year, in addition to a five percent drop seen earlier in 2015. This decrease is the first one experienced in the more than forty years since record-keeping on CO2 emissions began, and in 2016 overall carbon emissions in the U.S. dropped by 1.7 percent, with emissions from vehicles now outpacing electrical generation.
A number of factors are being attributed to this decline, although the main reason is the switch from coal to natural gas-fired plants, as the cost of natural gas has decreased due to the fraking boom seen over the past decade — natural gas only emits about half of the carbon dioxide that coal does when burned. Also, 2016’s global warming-fueled record temperatures were shared by the U.S., meaning that less electricity was used for heating over the winter, contributing to the decrease in emissions.
Switching to natural gas for electrical generation contributed to half of the carbon savings seen in 2016: an increase in the use of renewables such as solar and wind accounted for 40 percent of the drop, while increased power plant efficiencies and other factors made up for the remaining 10 percent.
It’s currently unclear as to how President Trump’s plans to revive the coal industry will affect whether or not emissions will continue to decline over the next few years: it may delay the retirement of older coal-fired plants, but the switchover will be inevitable if natural gas prices remain low. Unfortunately this, along with a lack of substantive vehicle emission improvements — a situation that may get worse due to Trump’s call to roll back earlier fuel efficiency standards — this record-breaking trend in the decline of carbon dioxide emissions may very well plateau.