After falling more sharply than at any point since World War II in 2020, US greenhouse gas emissions rebounded from the pandemic in 2021 — likely growing faster than the nation’s economy did last year, according to a preliminary analysis by research firm Rhodium Group. The rise in planet-heating pollution risks putting the US’s climate goals further out of reach, Rhodium warns.
Greenhouse gas emissions rose 6.2 percent last year compared to 2020, Rhodium found. That’s slightly higher than initial estimates for economic growth in 2021: a 5.7 percent rise in GDP, according to Goldman Sachs. It’s the latest evidence that as countries return to their old, polluting habits, the pandemic will do little to slow down climate change in the absence of more intentional pollution cuts.
The biggest culprits behind the US’s jump in pollution last year are diesel trucks and coal plants, Rhodium’s analysis found. Transportation was already the US’s biggest source of emissions before COVID-19 stalled economic activity in 2020. But a new trend emerged during the pandemic: demand for diesel outpaced gasoline. As people stayed at home to curb the spread of COVID-19, many picked up new hobbies, fixed up their homes, and shopped online more — keeping trucks busy with deliveries. Road freight was the only category of transportation that saw fuel demand surpass pre-pandemic levels in 2021.
Coal made a notable “comeback” last year, Rhodium says, after falling steadily for more than half a decade. Coal-fired power generation grew for the first time since 2014. Low natural gas prices have largely contributed to coal’s demise over the years, but last year, natural gas prices soared after an unusual cold snap dealt a double whammy to the US — it froze production and drove demand up for heating. Low stocks of natural gas in the US and abroad continued to keep prices high for much of the year. At the same time, economic recovery from the pandemic upped demand for electricity. Altogether, it was a boon to coal.
There was some good news in the Rhodium analysis: renewable energy grew in 2021, reaching 20 percent of US electricity generation for the first time. Solar power is poised to have a pretty good year in 2022 — it’ll make up almost half of all newly installed capacity to the power grid, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
After Joe Biden stepped into office last year, he re-committed the US to the Paris climate agreement and pledged to slash the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in half from peak levels in 2005 by the end of the decade. That will require a steady, year-on-year drop in greenhouse gas emissions. Rhodium’s latest tally, however, shows that the US was headed in the opposite direction last year. While the pandemic-related shutdowns dropped US greenhouse gas pollution by more than 22 percent from 2005 levels in 2020, emissions only fell by about 17 percent in 2021.