PRAGUE – Weather conditions around the world this summer have provided ample fodder for the global warming debate. Droughts and heat waves are a harbinger of our future, carbon cuts are needed now more than ever, and yet meaningful policies have not been enacted.
But, beyond this well-trodden battlefield, something amazing has happened: Carbon-dioxide emissions in the United States have dropped to their lowest level in 20 years. Estimating on the basis of data from the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) from the first five months of 2012, this year’s expected CO2 emissions have declined by more than 800 million tons, or 14%, from their peak in 2007.
The cause is an unprecedented switch to natural gas, which emits 45% less carbon per energy unit. The US used to generate about half its electricity from coal, and roughly 20% from gas. Over the past five years, those numbers have changed, first slowly and now dramatically: in April of this year, coal’s share in power generation plummeted to just 32%, on par with gas.
America’s rapid switch to natural gas is the result of three decades of technological innovation, particularly the development of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which has opened up large new resources of previously inaccessible shale gas. Despite some legitimate concerns about safety, it is hard to overstate the overwhelming benefits.