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Economy

America’s Carbon Emissions Fell for the First Time Since Covid

We’re back to emitting like it’s 1991 — even with a much bigger economy.

Smokestacks.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

For the first time since the pandemic began, both America’s economy and its carbon emissions moved in the right direction last year, according to a major annual estimate of the country’s climate pollution.

America’s greenhouse gas pollution from energy and industrial activities fell by 1.9% in 2023 compared to the year before, even as the broader American economy grew, according to the Rhodium Group, an energy research firm. It’s the first time this decade that the United States has hit the important mark of growing its economy and cutting its climate pollution at the same time.

Yet despite that progress, emissions probably aren’t falling fast enough for the U.S. to hit its climate goals under the Paris Agreement.

The new report is the first to provide a sense of how America’s greenhouse gas emissions changed last year, when the fuel economy of new cars hit an all-time high and the Biden administration’s climate law began to go into effect. The estimate is part of the Rhodium Group’s long-running series of analyses of American emissions, which are regularly cited by experts and government officials.

Here are five big takeaways from the new report:

1. The American economy is becoming less carbon-intensive — and the rate of that change is accelerating.

America’s carbon emissions peaked in 2005, when the U.S. released nearly 7.5 billion tons of greenhouse gases. Since then, the economy has kept growing, but climate pollution has slowly fallen. Last year, America emitted as much carbon as it did in 1991, when the economy was roughly a quarter of its current size.

This trend has picked up recently, according to the new report. Although the American economy has mounted a vigorous recovery from the pandemic recession, emissions remain about 6% below their 2019 level. The U.S. also cut emissions faster this year than it did during the 2010s.

Historical Emissions Trends and Reported Emissions

Chart of historical emissions trends.In million metric tons of CO2 equivalent.Rhodium Group

2. The power grid is driving most of those emissions reductions.

Last year, climate pollution from the power sector fell by 8%, a greater decline than in any other part of the economy.

That’s partly because the coal industry is dying. Coal continues to generate less and less power every year (even though it blipped back up briefly in 2021) as the economics of natural gas, wind, and solar drive it off the grid. Not only did the United States install a record amount of solar in 2023, it also opened its first new nuclear reactor in decades. Last year, for only the second time ever, nuclear power plants generated more electricity than coal plants did.

3. A warm winter also helped.

About 10% of America’s greenhouse gas emissions are produced by buildings, which mostly mean the furnaces in homes and offices. Space heating is the most energy-intensive thing most Americans do in their homes, and the overwhelming majority of American private residences and commercial buildings are heated with fossil fuels.

Thanks to climate change, 2023 was the warmest year ever measured, featuring an especially mild winter in the eastern and southern parts of the country. That meant that — ironically — Americans had to burn less oil, propane, and gas in their tens of millions of furnaces nationwide to keep warm, causing building emissions to fall by about 4% compared to the year before.

4. Transportation and industrial emissions are still problems.

U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Major Emitting Sector

Chart of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.In million metric tons of CO2 equivalent.Rhodium Group

Not every part of the economy saw emissions fall. In the transportation sector, carbon pollution levels rose slightly, driven not by cars and trucks as much as by an increase in air travel, which all but depends on fossil fuels. Last year was the busiest year for air travel in American history, and demand for jet fuel rose 5% compared to 2022.

The industrial sector — a catch-all term for dozens of heavy industries, including steel, cement, mining, and chemicals-making — also increased its emissions last year. Unlike in the power sector (and, for that matter, ground-based transportation), engineers and experts are still figuring out how to do many of the most carbon-intensive industrial activities without releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

But the industrial sector also includes the fossil-fuel industry, and last year, America’s oil and gas production reached an all-time high. Oil and natural gas emit climate pollution not just when they’re burned, but also when they’re extracted, and in 2023, the country’s roaring oil and gas industry was the biggest contributor to the industrial sector’s rising emissions.

Leaking, flaring, or venting natural gas — which is mostly comprised of methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide over the long term — especially puts additional climate pollution in the air. While the EPA will soon begin enforcing rules that crack down on natural gas-related pollution, those aren’t in place yet.

5. The U.S. remains off its Paris Agreement track.

President Biden has pledged that the United States will cut its emissions in half as compared to their all-time high by 2030. But with six years left to meet that deadline, emissions are only 17.2% below their high.

That means America must roughly triple its pace of pollution reductions — cutting them by 6.9% each year — to meet its goal.

Although carbon pollution is likely to drop more quickly in the next few years, especially as the Inflation Reduction Act and new Environmental Protection Agency rules kick in, emissions cuts of that magnitude are probably not feasible. That said, almost no other country is on track to meet its Paris Agreement goals, either. So at least there’s that.

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Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology. Read More

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