US carbon emissions down 7% in 4 years; UK material consumption in decline since 2001

Surprising news from the US via Lester Brown:

Between 2007 and 2011, carbon emissions from coal use in the United States dropped 10 percent. During the same period, emissions from oil use dropped 11 percent. In contrast, carbon emissions from natural gas use increased by 6 percent. The net effect of these trends was that U.S. carbon emissions dropped 7 percent in four years.

So what’s driving it?

The initial fall in coal and oil use was triggered by the economic downturn, but now powerful new forces are reducing the use of both. For coal, the dominant force is the Beyond Coal campaign, an impressive national effort coordinated by the Sierra Club involving hundreds of local groups that oppose coal because of its effects on human health.

The campaign started by focusing on opposing new coal power stations, which Brown says was “hugely successful”, before turning its focus to closing existing plants – and now 68 of a total of 492 are slated to close. This helps reduce oil emissions, too, given that 40% of US freigh rail diesel fuel is used to transport coal. (Brown doesn’t talk about the shale gas glut, one of the other reasons why emissions are falling – instead focusing on the high rate of growth in renewables. But let’s forgive him that.) Meanwhile, US oil emissions are falling for other reasons too, including…

…a shrinkage in the size of the national fleet, the rising fuel efficiency of new cars, and a reduction in the miles driven per vehicle.

Fleet size peaked at 250 million cars in 2008 just as the number of cars being scrapped eclipsed sales of new cars. Aside from economic conditions, car sales are down because many young people today are much less automobile-oriented than their parents. In addition, the fuel efficiency of new cars, already rising, will soon increase sharply. The most recent efficiency standards mandate that new cars sold in 2025 use only half as much fuel as those sold in 2010. Thus with each passing year, the U.S. car fleet becomes more fuel-efficient, using less gsoline.

Miles driven per car are declining because of higher gasoline prices, the continuing recession, and the shift to public transit and bicycles. Bicycles are replacing cars as cities create cycling infrastructure by building bike paths, creating dedicated bike lanes, and installing sidewalk parking racks. Many U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New York, are introducing bike-sharing programs. Furthermore, when people retire and no longer commute, miles driven drop by a third to a half. With so many baby boomers now retiring, this too will lower gasoline use.

Cheery stuff, eh? And that’s all before the spread of electric cars gets factored in to the equation – which will decarbonise things still further if emissions from power generation continue to fall.

Meanwhile, in the UK

2001 may turn out to be the year that the UK’s consumption of ‘stuff’ – the total weight of everything we use, from food and fuel to flat-pack furniture – reached its peak and began to decline.

That’s according to  Chris Goodall, a Green Party candidate and former McKinsey consultant who’s been trawling through the UK Material Flow Accounts, prepared by the Office of National Statistics. The Guardian’s Duncan Clark isn’t so sure that the 2001 peak is accurate (he thinks it might be a blip) – but he does conclude from exploring Goodall’s data that

…despite rising GDP, material consumption started falling from 2005; second, that after the recession hit, our consumption rates quickly dropped all the way down to sub-1970 levels.

Clark has a more detailed analysis piece about the data on the Guardian’s Environment Blog, which breaks the data down by sector – and shows steep declines on variables including household waste per capita (down about 15% since 2000), overall fertiliser use (nitrogen fertilisers down by a third since the early 80s, phosphate more than halved since 1970), per capita food consumption (down from almost 2,280 calories a day in the mid-90s to less than 2,070 today), and energy (total primary energy use down 10% since 2000.

Of course, there are lots of methodological issues behind these data: how much is due to the economic downturn, and how much due to genuine ‘decoupling’ of environmental impact from economic growth; how much is due to ‘exporting’ dirty industries to China and elsewhere; how much is due to one-off political factors like the ‘dash for gas’ in UK power generation in the late 1990s and so on. But still – good news is good news, and being rather a scarce commodity, you have to grab it when you see it…