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EPA: U.S. saw record decline in greenhouse gas emissions in 2008

March 9, 2010 |  1:19 pm

Cars in LA
High gasoline prices, a slow economy and – ironically enough – a cool summer caused U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to fall nearly 3% in 2008 from 2007 levels, the Environmental Protection Agency reported today.

It’s the largest year-over-year drop that the EPA has recorded since it began tracking greenhouse gas emissions in 1990.

The 2009 decline will likely be even steeper: The federal Energy Information Administration reported this month that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, the major driver of American greenhouse gas emissions, fell more than 6% from 2008 to 2009.

In many ways, the decline is intuitive. Gas prices soared in 2008. Americans drove less. Summer was cooler than in 2007, reducing air-conditioning demand and more than making up for increased heating costs that came from a cold winter. The economy slowed, reducing demand for electricity (read: coal) to power factories and businesses.

Even when gas prices fell a bit last year, cash-strapped Americans stuck largely to their reduced driving habits. Meanwhile, the economy – and the demand for electricity – fell even more.

Still, annual U.S. emissions remain 14% higher than they were in 1990, the EPA reports. When economic growth picks up again, the Energy Information Administration forecasts, emissions will grow again too. (With the major caveat that President Obama is pushing Congress to limit emissions and that the EPA has signaled it will regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act if Congress doesn’t act.)

The EPA analysis suggests emissions growth will slow in the future even without new climate policy. For starters, low-emissions energy sources such as wind and solar power grew as a share of the national electric mix in 2008. Overall, U.S. emissions are continuing a steady decline as a percentage of both population and gross domestic product – which is to say, we’re less dependent on fossil fuels to make the economy hum.

The EPA’s draft report, “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2008,” now heads for 30 days of public comment.

-- Jim Tankersley

Photo: California 2 in Los Angeles on February 10, 2010. When gas prices soared in 2008, Americans drove less, then largely stuck with their reduced driving habits.  Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

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