The last effort in the U.S. Congress to tackle climate change head-on died in 2010, amid ferocious lobbying by interests who argued it would wreck the economy. That bill would have cut carbon dioxide emissions 3 percent below their 2005 level by 2012.

The actual 2012 figures are now out and in fact, the United States was able to cut its carbon emissions fourfold below the goal of the ill-fated Waxman-Markey legislation, even though the nation’s economy grew 2.8 percent in 2012. A U.S. Energy Information Administration report released Monday showed that U.S. energy-related carbon emissions last year were 5,280 million metric tons, their lowest point since 1994 and 12 percent below the 2007 peak (and about 11.8 percent below the 2005 benchmark year that was used in the Waxman-Markey bill.)

Only the recession year of 2009 saw a larger drop than last year’s carbon emissions drop of 3.8 percent, which was the largest emissions drop in a year with positive GDP. (See related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Climate Change Science.”)

Part of the decrease was due to electric power stations making the switch from burning carbon-intensive coal to cheaper natural gas, which burns with half of the carbon emissions. But another major factor was a more energy-efficient economy. Overall energy consumption in the United States shrank 2.4 percent even while the economy grew. Vehicle miles traveled in 2012 were flat compared to 2011, while more energy-efficient vehicles are continuing to enter the market, EIA said. (See related story: “Climate Change Action Could Save 500,000 Lives Annually, Study Says.”)

The EIA said that warm weather in the early part of the year also played a role, and as such, “it is difficult to draw conclusions from one year of data.” Still, the agency ended with a positive outlook for the future: “Other factors, such as improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency and increased use of renewable generation, however, could play a continuing role in subsequent years.” (See related interactive map: “Four Ways to Look at Global Carbon Footprints.”)




  1. Villainesse
    October 28, 2013, 1:44 am

    Not only are we outsourcing the bulk of our previous in-country manufacturing, Cheney’s fracking boom has caused the price of coal to drop precipitously, and it also is massively being sold to China et al.

    So no pats on the back allowed. We need a real kick in the pants to get off of fossil fuel quickly, and fracking is the wrong answer.

  2. Puskar
    October 23, 2013, 11:35 pm

    In India, the recently passed Companies Bill, 2012 mandates large organizations to spend part of their net profit on activities related to Corporate Social Responsibility. Renewable energy presents an opportunity for organizations to make investments in sustainability that will pay back quickly.

  3. Charles Greene
    October 22, 2013, 10:43 pm

    Yes, our consumption has gone down; however, that comes from exporting our manufacturing sector to the developing world and then exporting the fossil fuels consumed in those countries. We didn’t reduce our emissions, we only exported them.

  4. Bruce Parsons
    Portugal Cove Nfld
    October 22, 2013, 9:15 am

    Don’t forget to mention the real reason in the drop in USA emissions – the outsourcing of manufacturing to China. If you really want to combat global warming, don’t buy anything built in China

  5. wilson ong
    October 21, 2013, 11:34 pm

    I believe that the carbon emission rate of the U.S. fell mainly because of out-sourcing. Many major factories have move to other countries thus lowering energy consumption . This also has a domino effect on all kinds of energy consumption, from offices, homes, vehicle usage to almost everything. As out-sourcing increased unemployment which in turn made people conserve to save money as the economy shrunk. It would be a good sign if the carbon emission fell but the economy of the U.S. remains bullish but as the situation is, it’s just fell because of the poor economy.