Carbon dioxide emissions in the United States grew 3.4% in 2018, their second-biggest jump in two decades, delivering what the Washington Post calls “a jarring increase” at a time when scientists are stressing the need to drastically reduce emissions.
“Strikingly, the sharp uptick in emissions occurred even as a near-record number of coal plants around the United States retired last year,” the New York Times reports . That result illustrated “how difficult it could be for the country to make further progress on climate change in the years to come, particularly as the Trump administration pushes to roll back federal regulations that limit greenhouse gas emissions.”
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The study released by The Rhodium Group, still an interim estimate based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and other sources, indicates the U.S. “now has a diminishing chance of meeting its pledge under the 2015 Paris climate agreement to dramatically reduce its emissions by 2025,” the Post reports. It also shows that “the world’s second-largest emitter, once a global leader in pushing for climate action, has all but abandoned efforts to mitigate the effects of a warming world.”
“The big takeaway for me is that we haven’t yet successfully decoupled U.S. emissions growth from economic growth,” said Rhodium partner Trevor Houser. But “I don’t think you would have seen the same increase” if not for Trump administration rollbacks.”
Emissions from electric power generation grew 1.9% last year, despite the rapid pace at which the U.S. is retiring coal-fired power plants, due largely to rising demand and the growing share of electricity produced from natural gas. “Emissions from the transportation sector rose 1% thanks to more airline travel and greater on-road shipping,” the Post states. Industrial emissions rose 5.7%, the Times reports.
“Even as power generation has gotten cleaner, those overlooked industrial plants and factories have become a larger source of climate pollution,” writes Times climate specialist Brad Plumer. “The Rhodium Group estimates that the industrial sector is on track to become the second-biggest source of emissions in California by 2020, behind only transportation, and the biggest source in Texas by 2022.”
And “as America’s economy expanded last year, trucking and air travel also grew rapidly, leading to a 3% increase in diesel and jet fuel use and spurring an overall rise in transportation emissions for the year. Air travel and freight have also attracted less attention from policy-makers to date, and are considered much more difficult to electrify or decarbonize.”
Michael Mehling, deputy director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said rising global emissions  make it difficult to pin all the blame for the U.S. increase on the Trump administration.
“It’s not an isolated phenomenon,” he told the Post. “Such political developments, including the rollback of domestic climate policies in the U.S., tend to have a considerable lead time before you can actually see their reflection in physical emission trends.”
Then again, with the U.S. pursuing plans to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement, “it’s very unlikely that anything will happen with setting new targets or moving on climate by 2020,” said Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “Which is a big risk, given that we have to bend the curve by 2020.”
Even with the last year’s increase, the Times notes that U.S. emissions are down 11% since 2005. “But if the world wants to avert the most dire effects of global warming, major industrialized countries, including the United States, will have to cut their fossil fuel emissions much more drastically than they are currently doing.”