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, carboncuts 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.
For starters, fracking has caused gas prices to drop dramatically. Adjusted for inflation, gas has not been this cheap for the past 35 years, with the price this year 3-5 times lower than it was in the mid- 2000’s. And, while a flagging economy may explain a small portion of the drop in US carbon emissions, the EIA emphasizes that the major explanation is natural gas.
The reduction is even more impressive when one considers that 57 million additional energy consumers
were added to the US population over the past two decades. Indeed, US carbon emissions have dropped some 20% per capita, and are now at their lowest level since Dwight D. Eisenhower left the White House in 1961....
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