Americans gobbled up fewer fossil fuels in 2020 than they have in three decades, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). Consumption of petroleum, natural gas, and coal dropped by 9 percent last year compared to 2019, the biggest annual decrease since the EIA started keeping track in 1949.
The COVID-19 pandemic was responsible for much of the fall as people stayed home to curb the spread of the virus and used less gas. In April 2020, oil prices nosedived below zero because there was so little demand. The US transportation sector alone used up 15 percent less energy in 2020 compared to the year before. Higher temperatures last winter also helped to cut energy demand for heating, according to the EIA. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels plummeted to a near 40-year low.
That downward trend will have to continue in order to stave off the climate crisis. Upon rejoining the Paris climate agreement, President Joe Biden committed the US to slash its planet-heating pollution in half this decade from near-peak levels it reached in 2005. That’s part of a global effort to keep global warming from surpassing a point that life on Earth would struggle to adapt to, a global average temperature that’s roughly 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
To hit that goal, there should be no further investments in new fossil fuel projects, according to a recent landmark report from the International Energy Agency. The oil and gas industries are already feeling the crunch from lawsuits and activist investors forcing them to move faster toward more sustainable forms of energy.
Renewable energy — particularly solar and wind — is on the upswing. Despite the pandemic, renewable sources of electricity grew at a faster pace last year than they have since 1999. After making up an impressive 90 percent of the global power sector’s growth, the International Energy Agency expects renewable energy to maintain the same “exceptionally high” growth through 2022.
Despite the momentum moving in green energy’s favor, cutting pollution from fossil fuels at a fast enough pace to avoid climate catastrophe is still an uphill battle. As economies opened back up after their pandemic lull, CO2 emissions came roaring back.
“The rebound in global carbon emissions toward the end of last year is a stark warning that not enough is being done to accelerate clean energy transitions worldwide,” Fatih Birol, IEA executive director, said in a March statement.