Earlier this year I looked at the prospects for the USA meeting its 2020 declaration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17% by 2020, relative to a 2005 baseline. Success at least looked feasible, driven by three significant factors:

  1. The reduction in emissions as a result of the financial crisis;
  2. The surge in natural gas production which at least has the potential to back out coal in the power sector, thereby delivering a reduction in power generation emissions;
  3. The new and much more stringent CAFE standards which are now in place.

As illustrated in the chart below, a key element of the appraisal is the degree to which emissions bounce back after the recession, i.e. as production ramps up in response to new factory orders and so on. This is because of the scale of the fall in emissions as a result of the recession itself – some 500+ million tpa. 

Very recently the US Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) released new estimates for global and national emissions for the years 2008, 2009 and 2010 – i.e. the key years in terms of the drop in emissions and first signs of recovery. The global trend is a concern given the significant jump of over 2 billion tonnes in CO2 emissions from 2009 to 2010 which more than offsets the 2008 to 2009 fall and puts global emissions at a record level.

The US figure is a real good news / bad news story. The rise from 2009 to 2010 was over 200 million tpa, which on the one hand indicates some recovery in the economy, but on the other puts significant pressure on a successful outcome  in 2020. The same projection but with the Industrial Recovery bar revised to 218 mtpa shows the target being missed by some margin.


A second critical element of this pathway is the rate at which natural gas backs out coal in the power generation sector – or coal generation is reduced as environmetal standards become tougher to meet, with natural gas filling the gap. The data for 2008-2010 isn’t conclusive, but it is showing some signs of a smaller recovery for coal than the national energy total and a loss of share in power generation to natural gas. 

Assuming about constant output from fossil generation through to 2020 (i.e. incremental power is picked up by new renewable capacity), then the necessary reduction scenario is only achieved if coal output drops by some 500,000 GWHrs and natural gas rises by a similar amount. More data is needed, but there is at least some indication that this trend may be underway, particularly now that petroleum based power generation has been driven to very low levels.