The global recession will provide a short respite from climate challenges, shrinking greenhouse gas emissions from industry, offices, homes and vehicles this year. When the economy resumes growing, so will the planet's carbon footprint, unless business-as-usual practices change.
U.S. greenhouse gas emissions totaled 7.3 billion metric tons in carbon dioxide equivalents in 2007, the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration reported last year. Using EIA's most recent forecast for CO2 emissions from major fuels, U.S. emissions could drop to 6.98 billion tons this year. Even if a recovery begins in 2010, as Federal Reserve governors predict, emissions next year could total 7.15 billion tons, less than in 2007. The carbon reduction would be greater, to be sure, if the more pessimistic economic forecasts prove true.
The United States has lost 3.6 million payroll jobs since the recession began in December 2007, and no major part of the economy has escaped. The gross domestic product fell 6 percent between the third and fourth quarters of last year, and industrial production in January was down 10 percent from January the year before. Manufacturing declined by 13 percent, and the empty factories, idled power plants, cold furnaces and fewer worker commutes are giving the atmosphere a brief break.
The recession's accelerating toll on factories and utilities led the research firm Point Carbon to lower its latest projection of European C02 emissions for 2008-12 by 4.4 percent from December's forecast. Japan and Australia have also reported cuts in power generation.
More time to perfect a new global treaty?
Harvard University economist Robert Stavins said the impact of the worldwide recession is "extremely unfortunate," but added, "I think there is a silver lining." Because the downturn approximates efforts by European nations to trim their emissions by about 2 percent a year, it will give policymakers and diplomats more time to perfect a treaty that is an improvement on the Kyoto Protocol. The current timetable calls for the treaty to be renegotiated in December in Copenhagen.
"What this says to me is that with regard to Copenhagen, it would be fully appropriate for nations of the world to sit back and take a deep breath." While he remains "bullish" on the prospects of a new treaty, Stavins said he thinks the lull in economic activity and accompanying drop in emissions mean that the negotiations should be less driven by "handwringing" over whether nations will meet a deadline imposed by accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Negotiators and the Obama administration, he said, can now take more time to perfect a treaty that works, so that they "don't make the mistakes of Kyoto, of countries signing a treaty whose targets they can't meet or that they can't ratify. So here's the opportunity that this terrible tragedy [the economic crash] presents."
Carbon intensity must shrink faster than the economy grows
The amount of greenhouse gases produced in this country for every dollar of economic growth -- called carbon intensity -- has been trending downward slightly. In 2007, each million dollars of GDP produced 632 million tons of CO2 equivalent, in constant dollars based on 2000 prices.
Changes in the makeup of the economy play a part in the trend. "We make different things than we used to," said Chris Fields, global ecology director at the Carnegie Institution for Science and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "It's [more] health care versus [less] aluminum. And the way we generate power has gotten more efficient."
But improvement must accelerate tenfold over the next four decades if levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are to be stabilized by 2050, notes a study by the McKinsey Global Institute.
"If we're going to shrink emissions and grow the economy, somehow we have to shrink carbon intensity faster than we grow," Fields said.
Pieter Tans, a senior scientist at the U.S. Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., said the carbon reduction gains from even a severe recession won't make a lasting difference in the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.
"Suppose the economy really slows down. How much will emissions decrease? Let's say 6 percent over a year," Tans said. "If you put that amount less carbon in atmosphere ... the reduction is just one-quarter of 1 part CO2 per million parts atmosphere."
"That's less than the year-to-year variability in measurements of atmospheric CO2," he added. "There is no sign of a slowdown in 2008" in C02 concentrations.