U.S. carbon emissions lowest in 20 years

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US carbon emissions

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A small sign of environmental positivity is glowing in the United States. According to a new report from the federal Energy Information Administration, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. from January through March were the lowest of any recorded for the first quarter of the year since 1992.

The agency attributed the decline to a combination of three factors: a mild winter, reduced demand for gasoline and, most significantly, a drop in coal-fired electricity generation because of historically low natural gas prices. But experts say whether emissions will continue to drop or rise again is still unclear.

The Energy Information Administration says carbon dioxide emissions from energy consumption totaled 1.34 billion metric tons in the first quarter. That’s down nearly 8 percent from a year earlier.

Natural gas is a more efficient fossil fuel than coal. However, burning it still produces carbon dioxide emissions. The benefits of natural gas is that it produces more kilowatts of power than the equivalent amount of coal. Scientists say it also provides more energy for each carbon dioxide molecule emitted into the atmosphere. Coal-fired electric power generation puts out about twice the amount of carbon dioxide. That’s about 2,000 pounds for every megawatt hour generated than natural gas-fired electric generation does. Scientists suggest the United States needs to reduce emissions to around 350 to 400 pounds per megawatt hour to stabilize atmospheric concentrations.

The New York Times spoke to Michael Mann, a climate scientist who directs the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. He told the newspaper that in addition to carbon dioxide emissions, natural gas wells contribute to other ills. When shale gas is taken from the earth, fugitive methane – a far potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide — can escape into the atmospheres through fissures in the ground.

Mann went on to tell the NYT, “We may be reducing our CO2 emissions, but it is possible that we’re actually increasing the greenhouse gas problem with methane emissions.”

Reports say wind and solar energy greatly outperform any fossil fuel when it comes to efficiency. But last year, those sectors apparently supplied less than 5 percent of the nation’s electricity.

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