U.S. On Track To Achieve 2030 Emissions Goals In 2016

A dramatic slump in coal production has pushed U.S. carbon emissions so low that, were the trend to continue, the U.S. would achieve its 2030 emissions goals this year, according to one professor's analysis of data from the Energy Information Administration.
Coal production has plummeted 29 percent in 2016 compared to the same period last year, crushed in part by cheap natural gas, which emits about half as much carbon. Unless coal rebounds, the U.S. could achieve a 32 percent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels, according to Daniel Cohan, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at Rice University.
That happens to match the final goal set for the year 2030 in the Clean Power Plan (CPP).
"It’s still conceivable to meet CPP this year, depending on the weather and how much further natural gas prices rise," Cohan told me via email.
EIA doesn't expect that to happen.
The agency forecasts a colder winter and rising natural gas prices, which would make coal attractive again to power producers.
But the notoriously fossil-friendly agency may be overestimating coal's prospects, and Cohan notes that EIA repeatedly lowered its carbon emissions estimates as actual data on First Quarter coal use arrived in recent editions of its Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO).
"We’re unlikely to sustain the Q1 trend, which benefited from warm weather and cheap gas. But I’m skeptical of EIA’s forecast of a Q4 rebound, given that its STEO’s have been consistently overestimating coal use. A rebound would have to overcome coal plant retirements, coal mining bankruptcies, and the possibility of another warm winter."
In its June Outlook, the EIA noted an unusually large stockpile of coal left on hand at the end of last winter:
"Warmer-than-normal temperatures experienced throughout the United States in March 2016 (and the winter as a whole) and coal's continuing loss of market share to natural gas for electric power generation contributed to the increase in coal stockpiles," the document says.
In addition to warm weather and low natural gas prices, Cohan credits "a broad array of emerging and cheapening technologies" for transforming power markets, including inexpensive renewables and increasing efficiency.
In scrutinizing EIA's data, Cohan noticed its emissions estimates were increasingly approaching the Clean Power Plan goal. He realized that if the coal rebound fails to materialize, the goal could be attained.
"Yes, you read that correctly: The U.S. could achieve the 2030 emission cuts this year," Cohan wrote in a blog post he penned for Bloomberg Governance.
Even if the U.S. doesn't achieve its 2030 goal this year, the EIA's more conservative estimates still bring the country most of the distance. Carbon emissions had already fallen 15 percent from 2005 to 2014, the last year for which reliable figures are available. EIA estimates another 4.5 percent drop across 2015 and 2016.
Cohan thinks recent emissions will fall more than 4.5 percent, because the EIA tends to overestimate coal use, and overestimate the cost of renewables. Those EIA estimates also cover energy emissions in all sectors of the economy. Focusing just on the power sector covered by the Clean Power Plan, the cuts are more dramatic, according to Cohan: a 12 percent decline in power sector emissions from 2014 to 2016, adding up to a 25 percent decline from 2005 to 2016.
"If we end up just a few percent away from the 2030 target this year, it becomes tough to argue that CPP is unattainable or too costly," Cohan said.
It could be argued, however, that the Clean Power Plan is unnecessary, because its long-term goal has come into view while the regulation remains idled in a court-imposed stay of execution. But without the Clean Power Plan, there's nothing to prevent a protracted coal rebound in the future that could wipe out the emissions gains.
"EIA’s longer term Annual Energy Outlook forecasts an ongoing rebound in coal consumption," Cohan said, "if the Clean Power Plan is not implemented."

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