The greening of America

President Obama (right) and vice-president Joe Biden inspecting a solar energy plant in Denver, Colorado (photo: The White House)

Since America lost the dubious honor of being the world’s biggest polluter to China in 2006, its carbon emissions have fallen to levels last seen in the mid-1990s

America never fails to surprise. First came the news that energy independence is just around the corner and now we learn that the US is on its way to meeting the emission targets that it refused to ratify in the Kyoto Protocol*.

How has it managed this? The answer is that it hasn’t. The “greening” of America is still primarily a side-effect of the shale gas revolution. By switching from coal to cleaner gas in power generation, America saw its emissions fall by 200 million tons (Mt) last year, according to the IEA (International Energy Agency).

But there’s more to this change than lucky coincidence. Despite endless bickering in Congress and vocal climate-change deniers, law makers have succeeded in passing several pieces of legislation to improve energy efficiency and promote renewables, and the results are starting to make an impact.

In the past five years, power from renewables has doubled; according to Solar Plaza nine of the world’s 10 biggest solar power plants currently under construction are in America, and the Department of Energy says the US today has more than 45,000 wind turbines providing enough power for nearly 15 million homes.

State and local initiatives abound – even schools are installing solar panels – and thanks to public prodding, private industry has also been taking the initiative. High-profile names are also associated with the trend. Apple recently announced that its data centers were now running exclusively on renewable energy, and Google is investing huge sums in renewable projects both inside and outside America.

The question is, is all this enough? The answer has to be no, because despite progress in America and Europe, where emissions also fell (by 50 Mt) in 2012, the declines were more than offset by rising emissions in the rest of the world. China alone (300 Mt higher in 2012) more than cancelled out the improvements in America and Europe combined.

The IEA estimates that at current trends, global temperatures are on course to rise by 3.6 to 5.3 degrees Celsius – well above the 2-degree threshold above which catastrophic events are expected to become commonplace.

In other words, America’s greening is a heartening and welcome step forward, but we still need a global solution.

* A global treaty, agreed in Kyoto, Japan, in 1998, in which countries agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. America withdrew its endorsement of the treaty in 2001.

Categories and Tags
About the author

Jonas Hughes

I am a writer and editor in the Corporate Communications department of ABB. I have worked as a journalist and communicator in Switzerland, Britain, North America and South Africa, and am interested in how technology affects the lives of ordinary people.
Comment on this article