Is It the Dawning of a New Era?

Big drop in CO2 emissions points to future possibilities

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It’s a rare thing to encounter good news regarding climate change. Which is exactly why a bit of hopeful writing from Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute caught my attention. Brown’s post, titled "U.S. Headed for Massive Decline in Carbon Emissions," contends that the U.S. has entered a new energy era characterized by declining carbon emissions. Do tell, Lester.

"For years now, many members of Congress have insisted that cutting carbon emissions was difficult, if not impossible. It is not," writes Brown. Citing statistics from the Department of Energy, Brown shows that carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal, oil and natural gas are on track to decrease 9 percent by year’s end from 2007 levels. Part of this decline is undoubtedly due to the Great Recession that we’re (hopefully) staggering out of. But Brown attributes some of this reduction to efficiency gains and renewables elbowing their way into the energy mix.

There’s more to come. As Brown notes, wind and solar power are ramping up while scientists are researching ways to maximize the potential of these intermittent energy sources. States are committing to get more of their power from renewable sources in the coming years, and geothermal projects are multiplying, for better or worse.

The benefits of energy efficiency continue to ripen, too: "The Rocky Mountain Institute calculates that if the 40 least-efficient states were to reach the electrical efficiency of the 10 most-efficient ones, national electricity use would be reduced by one third. This would allow the equivalent of 62 percent of the country’s 617 coal-fired power plants to be closed." See where your state ranks with this handy interactive map.

Increasingly, attention is being paid to potent greenhouse gases such as methane and other bad actors like black carbon (a.k.a. soot). Today, for example, the New York Times reports on efforts to curb methane seepage from oil and gas wells, pipelines, and other industry equipment. Globally, these methane emissions have "the warming power of emissions from over half the coal plants in the United States." Emissions of black carbon, which has a particularly strong impact on the Arctic, can be reduced substantially with existing technology. (To learn more about black carbon, join an online chat on October 20th with Martin Wagner, head of Earthjustice’s work on climate change.)

Of course, raising the victory flag wouldn’t be premature at this point—it would be downright ridiculous—but Brown’s point is a welcome one. Opportunities to land some good, quick punches in the fight against climate change are plentiful, and we’d be remiss to ignore them. Readers: have you come across similarly uplifting stories? If so, please share them in the comments, in honor of Blog Action Day. I bet we could all benefit from a bit of uplift.

Sam Edmondson was a campaign manager on air toxics issues from 2010 until 2012. He helped organize the first 50 States United for Healthy Air event. His desire to work at an environmental organization came from the belief that if we don't do something to change our unsustainable ways, we are in big trouble.