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I Predict U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions Peaked In 2007!
Joe Romm, 13 May 09

I am predicting that U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will never exceed 2007 levels. We have peaked.

The United States appears to be in the process of breaking its long-standing link between economic growth and global warming pollution. I am, of course, assuming in my prediction that the United States will enact into law serious energy and climate legislation, along the lines of Waxman-Markey, sometime soon.

What would have been almost impossible to imagine even a year ago is now, I think, a pretty safe bet thanks to a unique confluence of factors. Indeed, the main reason I'm able to make this prediction with such high confidence is the Energy Information Administration's remarkable, if little noted, report from last month, Updated Annual Energy Outlook 2009 Reference Case Reflecting Provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and Recent Changes in the Economic Outlook. It was Figure 3 that blew me away:

Yes, the EIA itself, which is incredibly conservative from a forecasting perspective, doesn’t foresee CO2 emissions returning to 2007 levels until 2024! But, of course, that post-2020 return to steadily rising emissions is exceedingly unlikely to happen -- thanks to peak oil and action by President Obama and Congress on energy and climate legislation.

Remember, EIA only models the "no further energy and climate policy" case and the "no peak oil" case, so the only thing one can say for certain about an EIA forecast is that there is no chance whatsoever it will come true. Indeed, the main drivers for the EIA's latest forecast change are just:

The energy-specific provisions of ARRA [the stimulus bill] that were represented in some fashion in NEMS [the EIA's major economic-energy forecasting model] include:
  • Weatherization and assisted housing
  • Energy efficiency and conservation block grant programs
  • State energy programs
  • Plug-in hybrid and electric vehicle tax credits
  • Updated tax credits for renewables
  • Loan guarantees for renewables and biofuels

Other major changes in NEMS to reflect changes in energy markets, laws, and
regulations since the development of the AEO2009 reference case include:

  • Update of macroeconomic assumptions

  • Update of near-term fuel price projections

  • Update of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.

But to give you an idea of the kind of forced myopia EIA has in its modeling, their analysis notes "wind capacity growth is projected to slow significantly after the expiration of the Federal tax credits in 2012." Yes, well, anyone want to bet me that the wind tax credit will be allowed to expire permanently in 2012 as EIA models? Didn't think so.

And, of course, the EIA simply does not accept the reality of peak oil. They project that in 2020, imported crude oil will cost $114.50 a barrel and gasoline will cost $3.62. In 2030, crude oil will cost $124 a barrel and gasoline, $3.82. All figures are in 2007 dollars. Hope springs eternal, even for the green eye shades at EIA. In the real world, however, for oil to be significantly below $200 a barrel and gasoline to be significantly below $5 a gallon in 2020 would take a miracle — or rather 6 miracles see “Science/IEA: World oil crunch looming? Not if we can find six Saudi Arabias!” and “IEA says oil will peak in 2020“). See also “Merrill: Non-OPEC production has likely peaked, oil output could fall by 30 million bpd by 2015“).

I think that peak oil plus inevitably stronger and stronger action on fuel economy standards, tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions, plug in hybrid electric vehicles, and low-carbon fuel standards will keep oil consumption trends flat for quite some time, followed by a steady decline post-2020ish.

And of course I am assuming in my prediction that the United States will enact into law serious energy and climate legislation, along the lines of Waxman-Markey, sometime soon, which will lead to steadily declining coal emissions post-2015.

So you see, what looks like a bold prediction is not terribly bold at all. I think this is much more of a sure thing than, say, my standard bet that the Arctic will be 90% ice free by 2020.

Still, it would be a very big deal for the richest country in the world, the one with by far the greatest cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, to break the economic growth - carbon dioxide link. And assuming that as many conservatives vote for comprehensive energy and climate legislation as voted for the clean energy stimulus bill, this achievement will be due primarily to the American public, progressive politicians, and, of course, the large and growing clean energy private sector.

This piece originally appeared in Climate Progress.

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