US planet-warming emissions increased by 1.3 percent in 2022 compared with the previous year, according to new preliminary estimates published early Tuesday morning.
Leading climate scientists warn that to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, the world must slash global greenhouse gas pollution by 7.6 percent each year until 2030. As the world’s top historical — and second-largest current — emitter, the United States bears particular responsibility to decarbonize quickly. But the new report by the leading independent research organization Rhodium Group, which analyzes US data on energy and economic activity for all of 2022, suggests the nation is not moving nearly fast enough.
Here are four revelations from the report about the nation’s emissions last year.
Overall emissions increased last year
The nation’s greenhouse pollution increased by 1.3 percent in 2022 compared to the previous year, the analysis shows.
After a steep 10.6 percent decline in 2020 — a result of pandemic-related lockdowns — emissions rebounded 6.5 percent in 2021 as restrictions eased up and countries ramped their economies back up. Last year, they continued to rise, though they’re still below pre-pandemic levels.
The increase was primarily driven by a 6 percent increase in direct emissions from buildings — an uptick the report attributes to increased energy consumption for heating in homes. Early 2022, after all, brought harsh, below-average winter temperatures to much of the nation. And though it was mild in New England, this past winter has brought frigid temperatures to many parts of the United States, too.
Emissions from the grid fell, but fossil fuel expansion continued
Though greenhouse gas pollution rose overall, emissions from the electricity grid — which accounts for 28 percent of the nation’s emissions — declined by about 1 percent last year, according to the analysis.
Several factors contributed to that drop. “Among these was the retirement of coal-fired generators and disruptions to the railroads that deliver coal to power plants, which hindered power plants’ ability to replenish their coal stocks and led to a reduction in coal generation,” the report says.
Much of that coal was replaced by gas, even though the energy source got much more expensive last year amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. US gas consumption for electricity generation increased by 7 percent last year.
While gas doesn’t emit as much carbon as coal or oil when burned, research suggests it still has a climate impact that rivals that of those dirtier fuels when leaks are taken into account.
On a brighter note, renewable energy generation also saw a significant increase last year, rising by 12 percent compared to the previous year.
In fact, last year was the first time in over 60 years that renewables generated more power than coal in the United States. While 22 percent of the nation’s electrical power came from renewables, just 20 percent came from coal, the report says.
The economy is getting less carbon-intensive
We won’t have official gross domestic product data for the year until September, but preliminary estimates show the nation’s economy grew by 1.9 percent in 2022.
That’s a faster growth rate than emissions saw last year, suggesting that the economy is becoming less carbon intensive, the report says.
For decades, economic growth and emissions growth were tied together; over the last century, the rise and fall of the global economy has mirrored the rise and fall of emissions. The report adds to a growing body of evidence showing that’s starting to change.
Critics note that gross domestic product is a highly imperfect measure of a country’s economic success, as it doesn’t take into account how equitably wealth is distributed. And the decrease in the carbon intensity of the US economy didn’t translate to a decrease in greenhouse gas pollution.
Still, the data illustrates that the United States can cut emissions without the economy suffering. And it represents a welcome turnabout from 2021, when the Rhodium Group found that emissions rebounded faster than the overall economy.
Much more work ahead
Despite some positive indicators, the biggest takeaway from the new report is that the United States is not on course to meet its climate goals. Though the increase was relatively small, any increase in emissions is a problem amid the ever-more-urgent climate crisis.
The report shows the United States is still lagging behind its own climate targets. Under the Paris Agreement, the nation committed to cutting greenhouse gas pollution by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and by 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 — a pledge that many experts describe as insufficient.
The country is failing to keep pace with that promise, the report says, noting that in 2022, emissions reached only 15.5 percent below 2005 levels.
To get back on track, the nation will need to “significantly increase its efforts,” the authors wrote.
Some progress is expected in the near future. The historic climate policies in the Inflation Reduction Act which the United States passed last year, for instance, could deliver significant emissions cuts, though experts disagree on exactly how much.
Even with that major policy under its belt, though, the United States needs to step up its game, the report says.
“In 2023, federal agencies can close this gap further by proposing aggressive regulations that drive down emissions,” the report says. “These actions, together with additional policies from leading states as well as action from private actors, can put the target within reach — but all parties must act quickly.”