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COVID-19 takes bite out of greenhouse emissions

By Brad Plumer

© The New York Times Co.

America’s greenhouse gas emissions from energy and industry plummeted more than 10% in 2020, reaching their lowest levels in at least three decades as the coronavirus pandemic slammed the brakes on the nation’s economy, according to an estimate published Tuesday by the Rhodium Group.

The steep drop, however, was the result of extraordinary circumstances and experts warned that the country still faced enormous challenges in getting its planetwarming pollution under control. In the years ahead, U.S. emissions are widely expected to bounce back once the pandemic recedes and the economy rumbles back to life — unless policymakers take stronger action to clean up the country’s power plants, factories, cars and trucks.

“The most significant reductions last year were around transportation, which remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels,” said Kate Larsen, a director at Rhodium Group, a research and consulting firm. “But as vaccines become more prevalent, and depending on how quickly people feel comfortable enough to drive and fly again, we’d expect emissions to rebound unless there are major policy changes put in place.”

Before the pandemic, America’s emissions had been slowly but steadily declining since 2005, in large part because utilities that generate electricity have been shifting away from coal to cheaper and cleaner natural gas, wind and solar power.

Then, the coronavirus arrived. As governors placed their states under lockdown last spring and Americans sheltered in place, emissions started plunging across parts of the economy that had rarely seen sustained drops before.

Transportation, the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gases, saw a 14.7% decline in emissions in 2020 as millions of people stopped driving to work and airlines canceled flights. While travel started picking up again in the latter half of the year as states relaxed their lockdowns, Americans drove 15% fewer miles overall last year than they did in 2019 and the demand for jet fuel fell by more than one-third.

Emissions from heavy industry, such as steel and cement, dropped 7% in 2020 as automakers and other manufacturers churned out fewer goods. America’s buildings, which produce carbon dioxide when they burn oil or natural gas for heat, saw emissions fall 6.2%, driven by both lockdowns and warmer-than-average weather.

In the electricity sector, emissions plunged by 10.3% in 2020, driven by a sharp decline in coal burning.

Renewable energy surged in 2020, as energy companies overcame disruptions from the pandemic to build a record number of new wind turbines and solar panels before a key deadline to claim a federal tax credit. The United States produced roughly as much electricity from renewable sources last year as it did from coal, a milestone that has never been reached before.

Overall, the fall in emissions nationwide was the largest one-year decline since at least World War II, the Rhodium Group said.

 

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