If the United States announced that it planned to cap greenhouse gases at 2005 levels, chances are that everyone would suddenly start arguing. Some would say the goal wasn’t ambitious enough, while others would argue that it would mean economic disaster. But if we just bumbled into it by some unexpected stroke of fate? Would we deserve any credit? Would anyone even notice?

If you look at the statistics, the United States has been slashing greenhouse emissions like a green tornado. The Energy Department says carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. fell 3 percent in 2008 and by 7 percent in 2009. What’s more, the government estimates U.S. carbon emissions won’t get back to 2005 levels again until 2027 – 16 years from now.

That’s faster than anything the government has proposed doing in the past. That’s quicker than we would have seen reductions if we’d ratified a new international treaty or passed a cap-and-trade plan.

The problem is that rather than doing it by pursuing a strong, well-thought-out clean energy policy, we’ve done it a different way: by driving the U.S. economy into a ditch.

This is what the Great Recession means for the environment. When the economy tanks, more people are unemployed, which means they buy less, commute less and generally do less of all the things that produce greenhouse gases. Energy use drops, and so do carbon emissions.

Energy Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions

U.S. Energy Information Administration

We’re not the only country where this is happening – carbon emissions in Europe dropped 2 percent in 2008 because of the recession. In fact, if you look at it historically, there are some dramatic examples. During the 1990s, Russia and Ukraine saw average annual emission drops of 3.9 percent and 6.3 percent, respectively. Unfortunately the main reason is that after the fall of the Soviet Union their economies totally tanked for the decade. Inefficient, smoke-belching Soviet-era factories were shut down because they couldn’t compete, and people started emigrating elsewhere. (Fewer people also means less greenhouse gases).

Of course, you’d have to be Pollyanna on Prozac to claim this is a good plan. Foreclosures, reckless Wall Street trading and 10 percent unemployment are a wretched price to pay for anything.

Have we been doing anything right here? Yes, actually. The fact that we’re making solid gains in energy efficiency and shifting to lower-carbon energy options are why carbon emissions aren’t bouncing back faster. The long-term changes we’ve started are why we’re not going to get back to 2005 emissions levels for another 16 years, even after the economy recovers.

Most scientists say, of course, that we’re going to have to do better than this if we’re going to have any chance of limiting climate change. The Obama administration has set a goal of a 17 percent cut in greenhouse gases by 2020, and we’re not on track to make that. The International Energy Agency, looking at the boom economies in places like China and India, warns that the global goal of limiting rising temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius can only happen with “vigorous implementation” of “a far-reaching transformation of the global energy system.” And that’s not really happening, either.

In some ways, we’re like someone who wants to lose weight, and unexpectedly does so by getting the flu. You have a choice once you’ve recovered. You can use the unexpected weight loss as a step up—one puts you closer to your goal. Or you can immediately revert back to the tacos and beer and see the weight come right back on.

So now we have a choice. The challenge is what it’s always been: how do we get the energy we need for a prosperous economy without doing irreparable damage to the planet? Given what’s happened to emissions because of the recession, the goal isn’t quite as overwhelming as it once was. Now we can either turn this into an opportunity and build on it, or just backslide into the same old, same old.


  1. stas peterson
    January 30, 2011, 2:57 pm

    You have been sucked into the fallacy of looking at only half of the problem.

    Humans both emit and absorb CO2 in their daily lives. Faithfully they fill-out the EPA forms and the statisticians compile them. Unfortunately the mighty Oak and Pine don’t file
    EPA bureaucratic forms discussing, how much CO2 they absorb and sequester while building the fibers and leaves of their being. So that is not accounted for, in the EPA and then your computations, based on the erroneous data.

    NASA satellites report that the Earth has visibly greened since the first satellites were sent up in the 60-70s. All that greening happened due to elevated levels of CO2 in the atmosphere with the massive absorption of CO2 used to build the their bodies of the trees and plants. Yet is wholly unaccounted for by the useless accounting taking place. Plants are stunted in the depleted CO2 levels that exist today, and a marginal increase has caused all this plant growth.

    There was a peer reviewed and published series of experiments and scientific papers, never refuted, but ignored unfortunately. It was conducted by several teams of scientists at Princeton University at the turn of the Century. They reported that there were indeed some places on Earth that emitted a net CO2 to the atmosphere. Partially deforested Europe, Asia, and Saharan North Africa did not have sufficient bio-sequesters and were NET t SOURCES of atmospheric CO2.

    But southern Africa, South America and North America were net sequesterers and NET SINKS of atmospheric CO2. You might think that the Amazon rain forest and the jungles of sub-Saharan Africa lead in this CO2 bio-sequestration, but you would be wrong.

    North America, sequesters 3 times the CO2 that the Amazonia does. North America despite having the most industrialized economies in the World, is the GREAT CARBON SINK of the World. It does that via bio-sequestration on a massive scale.

    At our latitudes the prevailing winds are generally West to East. Air blowing in from the Pacific has elevated CO2 levels, for whatever reason, after transiting from Eurasia and across the Pacific. After traversing the North America continent, the CO2 level slowly drops despite increases over the industrial cities of the Coasts and the American Ruhr of the Midwest. Air blowing out into the Atlantic, the air is depleted of CO2, compared to incoming Pacific air.

    How can this be? America and Canada are massively industrialized. We are supposedly the massive polluters of the world.

    But North Americans have made massive investments in land set-asides, for multi-use purposes. Although not established specifically for the purpose of sequestering CO2, our National Parks, Wildlife preserves, and Wilderness serve a second purpose in this regard. Places like like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir woods, the National Forests and Grasslands and the State and local parks, together with our private woodlands, ranches and farms, all are CO2 bio-sequestration sites. With little fear of leaks, as well as being homes for wildlife and Nature.

    Letting a mighty Oak or Pine grow, then harvesting it for lumber or paper to make room for its subsequent generations is much better bio-sequestration than what occurs in the Amazon, where a jungle grows, is not harvested and little room exists for subsequent generations until the old trees fall and rot, re- releasing CO2, to make room for the new. Little net sequestration is what occurs in all “Old Growth” forests. The kind the greens seem to prefer, for unfathomable reasons.

    In any discussion of CO2, North America has done all it need do, already and more besides. It absorbed and bio-sequesters all its own CO2 atmospheric emissions, and a lot from elsewhere. The CO2 battle is over, here.

    That is the great truth that one-sided accounting yields.

    PS: We have not lost our Steel industry. It is now the envy of the World producing the highest quality steels with th least use of energy . It is now all based on recycling the two hundred year supply of steel and iron that long industrialized America possesses,and they do not. We make new steel from old, using 95% “steel ore”, rather than the 2-3% iron ore that the rest of the third world must use. The little net new steel needed, is produced in most modern basic oxygen furnaces while the vast majority is re-melted in up-sized electric arc furnaces that were originally designed for making small lots of fine tool steels,thus insuring superior quality.

    There was no one to expedite the necessary steel reorganization so it took thirty years bankruptcies, plant closings, job layoffs, and community disruption to do it. I much prefer the thirty day bankruptcy reorganization of the North American auto industry proposed by Senator Corker, that ended the bailouts, and that accomplished the same thing.


  2. Bob from Accounttemps
    Southern Manufacturer
    January 27, 2011, 11:30 pm

    Appreciate Frank Manheim’s POV…and watched our industrial decline starting with the incalculable loss of Mesta Machine and our steel industry in the ’70’s. By the end of the eighties, I had sold all US manufacturing interests.

    It now costs twce as much to manufacture anything in a US plant than at quality offshore producers. And the US has become an industrial flyover zone.

    The good news for progressive elites is that we’ll make the 17
    % cut with room to spare, having offshored our pollution along with our high value added jobs. The unintended consequence is that global CO2 will rise as others make those products. It likely didn’t cost any NGEO subscribers their jobs either

    Welcome news is that AGW seems to be a diminishing effect…as we brace ourselves for another 25 year cold cycle.

    But, I wouldn’t count on any surplus funds for WTF from the US industrial cornucopia for a generation or so…O Tempora, O Mores.

  3. Frank T. Manheim
    Fairfax VA
    January 20, 2011, 10:47 pm

    Bittle and Johnson have a sound and challenging point. Getting poorer as a nation is a tough way to reduce carbon emissions.

    Unfortunately, it’s too little understood that a similar principle was at work in the dramatic reductions in pollution and other environmental impacts achieved through the revolutionary environmental laws passed in the 1970s.

    There was much that was innovative and advanced in the unprecedentedly detailed and intrusive environmental laws passed in an atmosphere of crisis in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara offshore oil spill of 1969. It’s not widely known that 3 of the five environmentally motivated senators that led in writing two major laws that kicked off the environmental revolution (Clean Air Act Amendments and Clean Water Act Amendments) were Republicans.

    in that era, 40 years ago, U.S. economic power and resilience seemed virtually inexhaustible. The U.S. had just landed a man on the moon, and our overwhelming economic dominance led some social commentators to suggest that the U.S. ought to voluntarily reduce its national productivity.

    So the framers of the environmental laws assumed that industrial companies could accommodate the unprecedentedly complex and rigorous new laws. Nobody either then or – apparently now could think that the harshness, rigidity, and complexity of the 1970s legislation, applied selectively to manufacturing, industry, and land use, might induce business leaders and entrepreneurs to move to more favorable fields like retail sales, banking, finance, real estate, export-import and foreign investments, that were not so disadvantaged.

    Why should we be surprised at the hemmhoraging of American industry when on top of the other disincentives. Our manufacturers are asked to cover health care and pension costs that for EU competitors are covered in whole or part in other ways. Add attacks not only by environmental organizations but stigmatization by even conservative economists who argue that the U.S. has “advanced beyond manufacturing” – and to new sources of wealth.

    For those who want more detail I recommend my book, F.T. Manheim, The Conflict over Environmental Regulation: Origin, Outcomes, and Comparisons with the EU; 321, Springer 2009.

  4. Bob Malanga
    January 19, 2011, 6:11 pm

    We developed a way to break up the carbon dioxide molecule and we’re being ignored. Must have something to do with the caron credit market. Soon or later we will prevail