Energy doesn’t just have implications for our standard of living. Energy production and consumption greatly impacts the environment too. Currently more than 80% of the world’s energy use relies on fossil fuels including oil, natural gas, and coal. With energy demand increasing globally, emissions from fossil fuel combustion are key contributors to climate change, with global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions measured at roughly 35 gigatons per year.
One gigaton is equivalent to 1,000,000,000 tonnes.
For the United States specifically, projections have shown that CO2 emissions may continue to decrease as the country transitions away from high carbon intensity coal combustion power plants for electricity generation, towards less carbon intensive fossil fuels such as natural gas. How much emissions decrease is a factor of many things, but in the graphs below published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, we can see the impact of fuel switching on emissions, as well as the impact of economic growth (think GDP again).
The graph below on the left-hand side shows a plot of projected carbon emissions by fossil fuel type in the United States. The projections show that coal contributes less to CO2 emissions in the future, but natural gas contributions increase as fuel switching (from coal to natural gas) is projected into the future. Additionally, as you can see on the right-hand side an increase in energy-related CO2 emissions correlates with projected increases in economic growth.
Although CO2 emissions are showing a relative decline, emissions are projected to slowly rise once again, beginning as soon as the mid-2030’s, published by the Energy Information Agency (EIA).1U.S. energy Information administration (EIA) independent statistics and analysis. EIA’s AEO2021 shows U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions rising after the mid-2030s. Today in Energy. U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). (n.d.). https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=46736.
The Paris Agreement
Although emissions in countries such as the United States are projected to relatively decline as we move towards less carbon intensive energy sources, climate change is still an alarming issue that requires global attention. However, such an agreement among nations has been formed, through a legally binding international treaty, referred to as the “Paris Agreement.” Adopted by 197 countries, “its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. To achieve this long-term temperature goal, countries aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century.”2United Nations Climate Change. (n.d.). The Paris Agreement. unfccc.int. https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement. In 2021, the United States, once removed from the treaty, rejoined the Paris Agreement, with the goal of establishing a carbon neutral economy by 2050, targeting emissions from the transportation and power sector, while increasing the consumption of renewable energy.3Peltier, E., & Sengupta, S. (2021, February 19). U.S. formally rejoins the Paris CLIMATE ACCORD. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/19/world/us-rejoins-paris-climate-accord.html. This is also why most forecasts you will see go out to 2050, such as the EIA chart shown above, projecting CO2 emissions and how they relate to the economic growth rate.
International Leaders at the Conference of Parties in 2015, where the Paris Agreement was first adopted.4Natural Resources Defense Council. Paris climate Agreement: Everything you need to know. (2021, August 11). https://www.nrdc.org/stories/paris-climate-agreement-everything-you-need-know.
Dr. Jon Olson of The University of Texas at Austin attends one of the sessions at the 2015 UN Climate Meeting in Paris.
Dr. Olson discusses carbon storage with another conference participant at the Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) Exhibit Booth co-sponsored by The University of Texas at Austin.