Energy: US Carbon Emissions Are Down--Now It's Time to Get to Work

When we look back on 2009, we might realize that this was the year America started on the path to a sustainable future. There are finally a number of positive developments, and every week brings more good news. Carbon emissions are declining in the US—in fact, they’re down 9 percent since 2007! Electricity sales are down 1.1 percent since 2008, coal is down 11 percent since 2007, oil is down 10 percent. Relatively low prices for natural gas have electric power generators switching from coal to the cleaner fossil fuel. Vehicle miles traveled are off 4.3 percent.

While much of this improvement is certainly due to the economic slowdown, it is also true that clean energy policies are starting to work: renewable portfolio standards, appliance efficiency standards, “cash for clunkers” and many others. The projections from the Earth Policy Institute are that greenhouse gas emission reductions will reach 12 percent by 2010. That’s a great start.

What has to happen now, now that we realize it is possible to reduce carbon emissions, is a redoubling of effort so that we decouple economic activity from pollution. We must develop a clean energy economy. This will require broad-scale implementation of a series of clean energy policies and practices, including energy efficiency retrofits to existing buildings; homes, businesses, public buildings and schools all need to reduce consumption as rapidly as possible. Fuel switching, particularly from fuel oil to natural gas, should be encouraged. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), a.k.a. “stimulus,” is pumping billions of dollars into a wide range of energy efficiency improvements across America. (Perhaps the website that tracks spending could also track the energy savings that result from these funds.) These efforts are creating lasting change and laying the foundation for a new clean energy economy.

The city’s Greenworks Philadelphia Plan is a good framework. Its goal of retrofitting 15 percent of all buildings in the city by 2015 is an ambitious start. The passage of PA Act 129 requires every electric utility in Pennsylvania to save electricity. PECO has already kicked off its programs with the launch of their CFL (compact fluorescent lightbulb) discount, through which CFLs will be discounted by $1 or $2 at select retailers. Energy Coordinating Agency is conducting 200 workshops across the city, teaching people how to save energy in their homes and distributing free weatherization supplies. All of these initiatives, small and large, are beginning to combine into something measurable. Local initiatives like these all across the country are building the awareness, expertise, commitment and momentum we need to take clean energy to scale.