“Emissions grew even faster than the economic recovery and that was largely the rebound in coal generation,” Larsen told CNN, noting that “there weren’t any significant policies to make economic growth less carbon-intensive.”
Preliminary 2021 data from Rhodium estimates economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions increased 6.2% compared to 2020 — which saw a steep drop in emissions due to the Covid-19 economic shutdown. Still, 2021 emissions remained 5% below 2019 levels.
Larsen said that “because of a lack of federal rules and standards,” changes in emissions “are largely at the whim of energy market dynamics.”
“We saw that major uptick in coal generation — the first increase in coal generation since 2014 — and that was largely because natural gas was so expensive and there was no backstop from allowing coal rebounding,” she said.
A bad year for Biden’s climate goal
The growth in US emissions is bad news for Biden’s overarching climate goal: a deadline of 2030 to cut fossil fuel emissions in half from 2005 levels. Climate and energy experts, including Larsen, widely agree that these emissions cuts won’t happen at the current economic trajectory — they need policy changes to occur.
Experts consider 2020 a bit of an anomaly; emissions fell significantly because Covid-19 ground economic growth to a halt for months. While Larsen and others are certainly not calling for economic growth to slow in the future, they say Biden needs to see a lot more years like 2020 in terms of emissions output.
“We need to repeat 2020 in terms of emission reductions while achieving economic growth,” Larsen said. “We really need to escalate annual emissions reductions; we can’t have any more years of emissions growth.”
World Resources Institute senior associate Devashree Saha — who was not involved in the Rhodium report — told CNN their 2021 US emissions estimates “are not very surprising” and agreed there needs to be significant policy changes to make a dent.
“Under a business-as-usual scenario with all the climate policies you have today at the federal, state and local level — if we don’t have any additional policy, the outlook by 2030 is we would only get to 31% emission reductions” from 2005 levels, Saha said.
“The policies included in the Build Back Better Act are really our best bet,” Saha said.
“In an ideal world you use both to have the most efficient outcome,” she said about federal regulations combined with incentives to spur greater use of clean energy. “Some combination of those two approaches is really going to be what’s most effective at deploying clean generation at the scale we need.”