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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

EIA Publicizes Drop in U.S. CO2 Emissions

But Is This Right?

George Harvey

A recent article from the Sun Day Campaign (SDC), which was posted at the Green Energy Times website (, asked some serious questions about data coming from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA). Specifically, it looked at possible contradictions, not in terms of numbers per se, but in terms of the impressions the EIA gave readers.

In September, an EIA press release said U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions had decreased by almost 1% in 2017. About a month later, in October, another EIA press release told us that CO2 emissions had dropped 28% since 2005.

Also in October, however, the “Monthly Energy Review” made it clear that carbon emissions were very much on the rise in the first seven months of this year. The SDC article observed that the increase in natural gas was up 12% in the first seven months of 2018, compared with the first seven months of 2017. It also said that overall, U.S. carbon emissions from energy were up 2.90% so far in 2018, compared to the same months last year. The observation was that these figures “paint a very different picture and suggest reasonable cause for alarm.”

Making sense of this takes a little study. We could start with the note that the figures showing declines in overall U.S. emissions relate to periods ending in 2017. But within the data for this year are other details worth considering.

Having looked at the data with some care to details, we agree that there is some cause for alarm. Nevertheless, we should be careful to portray things in a broader context. We also have eight months of data for comparison now, and the latest data are slightly different from what the SDC had.

The current level of consumption of natural gas is at an all-time high in the U.S. It is true that it is up 12% from 2017, but the first eight months of 2017 showed a remarkable decline of 4.55% from levels in the first eight months of 2016. Overall, the level of emissions associated with burning gas was up in the first eight months of 2018 by only a little less than 7% from the first eight months of 2016, two years ago. This is not good, and is in fact a bit alarming, but it is still only 3.5% per year, and not as bad as the increase of 12% in a single year would appear to indicate.

Other factors should be taken into account in addition to natural gas. One is that the use of coal is still declining, despite efforts by the current federal administration to revive it. Comparing the first eight months of 2016 and 2017, as natural gas emissions dropped, we see a drop in emissions of 0.56% for coal. Now, with natural gas emissions rising, what we see for coal is that emissions dropped by over 5% from 2017 to 2018, for the first eight months of each year.

Another factor in overall emissions is that we are burning more petroleum, largely for vehicles and heating. Where it had risen a little more than 0.5% from 2016 to 2017, the increase is over 2% from 2017 to 2018.

The overall picture is not good. For the first eight months in 2018, compared to those of 2017, it is actually slightly worse than the SDC article indicated. The extra month of data past what the SDC mentioned shows that the overall rise in U.S. CO2 emissions at 3.0%.

With relaxing attitudes on emissions, relaxed rules, and relaxed enforcement, the levels of emissions are certainly on the rise. Clearly, the situation is not as desperate as it might have appeared to be at first glance, but we need to do better if we are to keep the climate from being chaotically destructive.

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