Did you resolve last January that 2010 would be the harbinger of a new low-carbon world?

Sorry, the statistics for 2010 are coming in, and it’s pretty clear it did not happen. Let’s take a look.

A Hot Time on the Old Planet

It wasn’t that long ago that climate refudiaters peering into the tea leaves declared global warming over and global cooling upon us. Preliminary analyses indicate that 2010 did not follow form.

  • NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, using data through November, puts 2010 as the warmest year in its 131-year record, just a few hundredths of a degree warmer than 2005.
Source: Goddard Institute for Space Studies (Click graphs for bigger image.)

Atmospheric CO2 Reaches New Heights

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations continued to rise in 2010.

At the Mauna Loa Observatory (the home of the longest atmospheric carbon dioxide [CO2] record), the CO2 concentration trend in November 2010 was 390.66 parts per million. That’s 2.58 ppm higher than in November 2009. It’s also the highest ever recorded in modern times, and, on the basis of ice core data, the highest the world has seen in the last 650,000 years and likely in the last 2 million years.

After Brief Respite, CO2 Emissions Tick Upward

The global economic downturn, a k a the Great Recession, has had, amid all the misery, at least one silver lining: a drop in CO2 emissions. After nine straight years of annual increases, global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels declined by 1.3 percent in 2009, and U.S. CO2 emissions from fossil fuels decreased by seven percent. At the same time U.S. carbon intensity — the amount of CO2 emissions per dollar of gross domestic product — fell by five percent.

But a downward dip does not necessarily a trend make. Preliminary estimates indicate that improved economic conditions brought higher emissions.

Meanwhile, we’ve become less efficient, with energy intensity up 1.5 percent and carbon intensity up 2.4 percent relative to 2009.

Dirty Energy Goes Hand in Hand with Rising CO2 Emissions

Why the increase in carbon intensity? More coal-burning looks to be part of the answer.

Using year-to-date statistics ending in September 2010, the EIA estimates that total U.S. electricity generation increased by about 150,000 thousand megawatt hours over the same period in 2009.

Coal generation was responsible for the largest share, contributing about 100,000 thousand megawatt hours [xls]. That’s 67 percent of the total increase, a good deal larger than its 45-percent slice of the electrical generation pie.

A Bit of Good News on the Renewable Energy Front Blows In

The energy stats for the year weren’t all bad, thanks in part to renewables.

Increased Renewable Generation: While coal saw huge gains in 2010, non-hydro renewables (including wind) did okay. This category contributes only four percent to the nation’s total electrical generation, but grabbed almost 12 percent of the increase in year-to-date generation, with 80 percent [xls] of that from wind.

Wind capacity grows: As of October, the United States added about 12,500 megawatts of new generation in 2010 (see table below). Of that increase, 35 percent came from coal — less than its market share. The big winner was natural gas — contributing 40 percent of the increase and perhaps indicating a shift to cleaner burning fossil fuels. While not the boom year of 2009 [pdf], wind still managed to contribute 16 percent in 2010, way above its market share.

Fuel Capacity in MW added in 2010 (through October) Percent of New Capacity Percent Increase from 2009 total Total Capacity (MW)
Coal 4,400 35 1 314,294*
Natural Gas 5,050 40 1 401,244*
Wind 2,049 16 6 34,296**
Total 12,560 1,036,807***

Source: EIA net summer capacity in megawatts (MW).
* 2009 totals not updated with 2010 changes.
** 2009 totals not updated for 2010.
*** Total reflects 2010 additions and retirements.

So there you have it. Not much of a low-carbon treasure trove. But there’s always next year. Have you made all your New Year’s resolutions yet?
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Note: The American Wind Energy Association reports that 2,260 MW of wind capacity has been added through September 2010. AWEA projects [pdf] that projects completed in the fourth quarter will increase 2010’s total to more than 5,000 MWs of added capacity.