According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions fell in 2019 by 2.6 percent (150 million metric tons). EIA attributes nearly all (96 percent) of this decline to the changing mix of fuels used to generate electricity. And, that is mainly due to low-cost natural gas replacing coal power in the electric utility generating sector. As a result, carbon dioxide emissions fell by 8.1 percent in the generating sector in 2019, while carbon dioxide emissions from coal fell by 15 percent (177 million metric tons).
Natural gas was able to replace coal because of low prices resulting from hydraulic fracturing, which began around 2007 when electric utility sector emissions began a steady decline, as noted in the above graph. U.S. electric power sector emissions fell by 33 percent from their peak in 2007 because less electricity has been generated from coal and more electricity has been generated from natural gas (which emits less carbon dioxide when combusted than coal) and non-carbon sources (such as solar and wind). U.S. total energy-related carbon dioxide emissions fell 15 percent since their 2007 peak.
In 2019, solar and wind power only provided 9 percent of generation—up from less than 1 percent in 2007, while natural gas provided 38 percent of generation in 2019—up from 22 percent in 2007—a gain of 16 percentage points. In 2007, coal generated 49 percent of the nation’s electricity. By 2019, coal generation dropped to 23 percent—a drop of 26 percentage points.
Nuclear and renewable sources of electricity generation that do not emit carbon dioxide collectively reached a record-high 38 percent share of U.S. electricity generation in 2019. The changes in the composition of electricity generation, as well as improvements in energy efficiency, led to a decrease in the total carbon intensity of electricity, which dropped from 619 metric tons per megawatt hour in 2005 to 408 metric tons per megawatt hour in 2019—a drop of 34 percent.
Worldwide Carbon Dioxide Emissions
According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, carbon dioxide emissions grew worldwide by 0.5 percent in 2019. China increased its energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by 3.4 percent (319 million metric tons, more than twice as much as the U.S. reduced) in 2019 and represented 29 percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions compared to 15 percent for the United States. India increased its energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by 1.1 percent (28 million metric tons) in 2019 and represented 7 percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions. Combined, China, the United States, and India emitted half of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Japan ranked fourth with a 3 percent share of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2019.
Countries such as China, India, and Japan are constructing coal-fired power plants. Since 2000, China’s coal fleet has grown five-fold and now totals 1,040 gigawatts—nearly half the global total or about 5 times as large as the coal fleet in the United States. China is one of 80 countries in the world using coal power—up from 66 in 2000. Coal generated 36 percent of the world’s electricity in 2019, close to its highest share in decades and a greater share than any other generating fuel. China, however, almost doubled that share, generating 65 percent of its electricity from coal in 2019, using a very young coal fleet with generators averaging 14 years of age and capable of operating for an additional 40 years or more.
China is still building new coal-fired power plants that can operate for 50 or 60 years—well beyond the 2060 date it set for carbon neutrality. China is currently planning to build 250 gigawatts of coal-fired generating capacity—more than the entire coal-fired capacity that the United States currently has in its generating fleet—and 21 percent more than planned in 2019 (206 gigawatts). Once these plants are built, China will have more coal-fired capacity than the entire generating fleet in the United States from all power sources.
India generates 76 percent of its electricity from coal. As of 2019, India had opened 52 new coal mines in a five year span in order to reduce its rising coal imports, which were adding to its trade deficit. Nearly 20,000 villages in India and 24.8 million families have received power connections as a result. Coal-fired electricity generation made this electrification possible, meeting the over 5 percent increase in electricity demand. The 52 new coal mines reflect an 86 percent increase over the 28 mines India added in the five-year period between 2009 and 2014.
Can Other Countries Emulate the United States?
Natural gas is being used increasingly by global economies, increasing 2 percent in 2019, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. However, the low natural gas prices achieved by hydraulic fracturing in the United States are not reaching world markets. For natural gas to be exported, it must be liquefied, which increases its cost. And, it must also be transported to purchasing countries, again, increasing its cost particularly when transported over oceans.
In Europe, Russia is currently the largest natural gas supplier, and, the country has been found to raise natural gas prices when it needs to exert political pressure to achieve its policies on the world stage. Germany, for example, gets half of its natural gas imports from Russia and it will most likely be importing more if and when the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is completed. Construction of the 2,460 kilometer natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany was halted after the United States enacted a sanctions bill in December 2019. Nord Stream 2 has another 100 kilometers to be constructed and construction is expected to resume in December.
The United States is reducing its carbon dioxide emissions more than any other country by reducing its coal-fired generation and increasing its generation of natural gas, solar and wind. The other three largest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions in the world (China, India, and Japan) are increasing their carbon dioxide emissions and are building coal-fired power plants that can operate for 50 or 60 years, despite these country’s commitments to the Paris accord. The United States was able to make its reductions in carbon dioxide emissions mainly due to hydraulic fracturing that enabled the price of natural gas to decline and remain low. Other countries are not as flexible in using natural gas to achieve similar reductions because they do not have access to the large amount of low cost natural gas made available in the United States through the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.