As I have noted on a couple occasions in the past (Carbon emissions down, and down again), the U.S. is no longer the biggest polluting nation in the world. Almost all metrics of air, water, and soil pollution in the U.S are better than 4 or 5 decades ago. The big surprise for many of the environmental bent is that carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. have gone down. The latest report indicates that carbon emissions are the lowest they have been since 1992!! (another article on the report can be found here).
Kudos to the U.S., anyway, I am willing to say this is a good thing. Unfortunately this good news was not trumpeted very much in national media outlets (unlike the record low arctic sea-ice). I am always talking about positive reinforcement and here is a great opportunity. Environmentalists and climatologists who are concerned about AGW should be online and in media everywhere extolling the virtues of cutting emissions and telling everyone to keep up the good work. With solar panel prices so low, the government could be pushing more people to install them and further lower our emissions. Even if you are skeptical about “global warming” (AGW), using less fossil fuels and cleaner fuels is a great thing because it reduces the U.S. dependence on foreign energy and promotes cleaner air, water, and soil.
The U.S. is emitting so much less carbon dioxide that it now only accounts for 16% of the world’s emissions. China has soared past the U.S. and now emits 29% of the world’s carbon dioxide. I wonder how long it will take for perceptions to re-align. For so many years now the U.S. has been endlessly derided as the world’s worst polluter. China, and even India on many metrics, are now much worse. Will environmental organizations now start protesting in China?
So what is behind the dramatic drop in U.S. emissions? It is a combination of things. Alternative energy is playing a small part. The continuing economic slump is playing a small part. The switch to natural gas has made the biggest impact – which I pointed out a few months ago. In comparison to the negative side effects of using natural gas as a transition fuel (fracking problems, potential pollution), the reduced emissions are most definitely worth it.
Some commentators are not impressed, saying that the U.S. is just exporting manufacturing to other countries and that is why our emissions are going much lower while other countries are rising. This is not really true. Yes, manufacturing jobs in the U.S. are under pressure, but the U.S. still manufactures a lot of stuff. According to the U.S. Census bureau, U.S. manufacturing output grew 11% in 2011 up to nearly $5 trillion. So how do we still manufacture so much and yet have lower emissions? Productivity and efficiency. It is happening all around us all the time. It is progress. Progress can be scary, as I have mentioned before here and here, but we must confront it. Without progress or change, I am unsure that life would be very meaningful.
Progress (greater efficiency) happens in such small increments that it can sometimes be hard to notice. No one person can keep up with all the changes, but I try to hit the highlights from time-to-time in the blog. Even though LED lights have not seen wide adoption within the home, they are increasingly used for traffic lights, street lights, parking lot lights, and many more applications. Each light that replaces an incandescent or fluorescent light is an incremental gain in energy efficiency. Automobiles continue to become more efficient every year and the number of hybrids and electrics continue to grow. Appliances get more efficient every year. And the list goes on and on.
One seemingly small improvement I noticed the other day was the creation of a flexible aerogel. If you are unfamiliar with aerogel, it is sometimes referred to as solid smoke. It is the lightest solid material known, excluding a similar nanotube based substance invented/created just a couple of weeks ago. Read about aerogel here at wikipedia. It is a strong super-insulating substance but has not found much use because it is also very brittle. Now along comes flexible aeorgel (no word on the cost yet) and all of a sudden we could have another significant increase in efficiency. Could you imagine how much better aerogel would be at insulating houses, or appliances like refrigerators and freezers? Appliances could be much lighter as well, saving on material and shipping costs.
The little developments matter. As long as the U.S. doesn’t get into another wasteful speculative boom like the housing bubble and its attendant suburban sprawl, the future should be much cleaner.
Have a good Wednesday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.
This post was written by jloew on August 29, 2012