Why Emissions Are Declining in the U.S. But Not in Europe

It wasn't that long ago that the U.S. was cast as the global climate villain, refusing to sign the Kyoto accord while Europe implemented cap and trade. 

But, as we note below in a new article for Yale360, a funny thing happened: U.S. emissions started going down in 2005 and are expected to decline further over the next decade, while Europe's cap and trade system has had no measurable impact on emissions. Even the supposedly green Germany is moving back to coal.

Why? The reason is obvious: the U.S. is benefitting from the 30-year, government-funded technological revolution that massively increased the supply of unconventional natural gas, making it cheap even when compared to coal.   

The contrast between what is happening in Europe and what is happening in the U.S. challenges anyone who still thinks pricing carbon and emissions trading are more important to emissions reductions than direct and sustained public investment in technology innovation. 

— Ted and Michael

Yale 360

Beyond Cap and Trade: A New Path to Clean Energy

Putting a price and a binding cap on carbon is not the panacea that many thought it to be. The real road to cutting U.S. emissions, two iconoclastic environmentalists argue, is for the government to help fund the development of cleaner alternatives that are better and cheaper than natural gas.

by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

A funny thing happened while environmentalists were trying and failing to cap carbon emissions in the U.S. Congress. U.S. carbon emissions started going down. The decline began in 2005 and accelerated after the financial crisis. The latest estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration now suggest that U.S. emissions will continue to decline for the next few years and remain flat for a decade or more after that.

The proximate cause of the decline in recent years has been the recession and slow economic recovery. But the reason that EIA is projecting a long-term decline over the next decade or more is the glut of cheap natural gas, mostly from unconventional sources like shale, that has profoundly changed America’s energy outlook over the next several decades.

Gas is no panacea. It still puts a lot of carbon into the atmosphere and has created a range of new pollution problems at the local level. Methane leakage resulting from the extraction and burning of natural gas threatens to undo much of the carbon benefit that gas holds over coal. And even were we to make a full transition from coal to gas, we would then need to transition from gas to renewables and nuclear in order to reduce U.S. emissions deeply enough to achieve the reductions that climate scientists believe will be necessary to avoid dangerous global warming.

But the shale gas revolution, and its rather significant impact on the U.S. carbon emissions outlook, offers a stark rebuke to what has been the dominant view among policy analysts and environmental advocates as to what it would take in order to begin to bend down the trajectory of U.S. emissions, namely a price on carbon and a binding cap on emissions. The existence of a better and cheaper substitute is today succeeding in reducing U.S. emissions where efforts to raise the cost of fossil fuels through carbon caps or pricing — and thereby drive the transition to renewable energy technologies — have failed.

In fact, the rapid displacement of coal with gas has required little in the way of regulations at all. Conventional air pollution regulations do represent a very low, implicit price on carbon. And a lot of good grassroots activism at the local and regional level has raised the political costs of keeping old coal plants in service and bringing new ones online.

But those efforts have become increasingly effective as gas has gotten cheaper. The existence of a better and cheaper substitute has made the transition away from coal much more viable economically, and it has put the wind at the back of political efforts to oppose new coal plants, close existing ones, and put in place stronger EPA air pollution regulations.

Yet if cheap gas is harnessing market forces to shutter old coal plants, the existence of cheap gas from unconventional places is by no means the product of those same forces, nor of laissez faire energy policies. Our current glut of gas and declining emissions are in no small part the result of 30 years of federal support for research, demonstration, and commercialization of non-conventional gas technologies without which there would be no shale gas revolution today.

Starting in the mid-seventies, the Ford and Carter administrations funded large-scale demonstration projects that proved that shale was a potentially massive source of gas. In the years that followed, the U.S. Department of Energy continued to fund research and demonstration of new fracking technologies and developed new three-dimensional mapping and horizontal drilling technologies that ultimately allowed firms to recover gas from shale at commercially viable cost and scale. And the federal non-conventional gas tax credit subsidized private firms to continue to experiment with new gas technologies at a time when few people even within the natural gas industry thought that firms would ever succeed in economically recovering gas from shale.

The gas revolution now unfolding — and its potential impact on the future trajectory of U.S. emissions — suggests that the long-standing emphasis on emissions reduction targets and timetables and on pricing have been misplaced. Even now, carbon pricing remains the sine qua non of climate policy among the academic and think-tank crowds, while much of the national environmental movement seems to view the current period as an interregnum between the failed effort to cap carbon emissions in the last Congressand the next opportunity to take up the cap-and-trade effort in some future Congress.

And yet, the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which has been in place for almost a decade now and has established carbon prices well above those that would have been established by the proposed U.S. system, has had no discernible impact on European emissions. The carbon intensity of the European economy has not declined at all since the imposition of the ETS. Meanwhile green paragon Germany has embarked upon a coal-building binge under the auspices of the ETS, one that has accelerated since the Germans shut down their nuclear power plants.

Even so, proponents of U.S. emissions limits maintain that legally binding carbon caps will provide certainty that emissions will go down in the future, whereas technology development and deployment — along with efforts to regulate conventional air pollutants — do not. Certainly, energy and emissions projections have proven notoriously unreliable in the past — it is entirely possible that future emissions could be well above, or well below, the EIA’s current projections. But the cap-and-trade proposal that failed in the last Congress, like the one that has been in place in Europe, would have provided no such certainty. It was so riddled with loopholes, offset provisions, and various other cost-containment mechanisms that emissions would have been able to rise at business-as-usual levels for decades.

Arguably, the actual outcome might have been much worse. The price of the environmental movement’s demand for its “legally binding” pound of flesh was a massive handout of free emissions allocations to the coal industry, which might have slowed the transition to gas that is currently underway.

Continuing to drive down U.S. emissions will ultimately require that we develop low- or no-carbon alternatives that are better and cheaper than gas. That won’t happen overnight. The development of cost-effective technologies to recover gas from shale took more than 30 years. But we’ve already made a huge down payment on the technologies we will need.

Over the last decade, we have spent upwards of $200 billion to develop and commercialize new renewable energy technologies. China has spent even more. And those investments are beginning to pay off. Wind is now almost as cheap as gas in some areas — in prime locations with good proximity to existing transmission. Solar is also close to achieving grid parity in prime locations as well. And a new generation of nuclear designs that promises to be safer, cheaper, and easier to scale may ultimately provide zero-carbon baseload power.

All of these technologies have a long way to go before they are able to displace coal or gas at significant scale. But the key to getting there won’t be more talk of caps and carbon prices. It will be to continue along the same path that brought us cheap unconventional gas — developing and deploying the technologies and infrastructure we need from the bottom up.

When all is said and done, a cap, or a carbon price, may get us the last few yards across the finish line. But a more oblique path, focused on developing better technologies and strengthening conventional air pollution regulations, may work just as well, or even better.

For one thing should now be clear: The key to decarbonizing our economy will be developing cheap alternatives that can cost-effectively replace fossil fuels. There simply is no substitute for making clean energy cheap.

© 2010 Yale Environment 360