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America Is Winning a Race That It Never Signed Up For

Carbon Intensity of the U.S. Economy, 1949-2012
Source: U.S. EIA Carbon Report - 10/21/13

When it comes to reaching international deals on climate change, the U.S. hasn’t had much success. No one has. That’s too bad, because when it comes to cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, America ranks among the best in the world.

The chart above shows the carbon intensity of the U.S. economy since 1949. The blue line shows metric tons of carbon dioxide produced per million dollars of economic output.

Last year the U.S.’s carbon intensity dropped by 6.5 percent, by far the biggest decline since record keeping began in 1949, according to theU.S. Energy Information Administration . Energy-related CO2 emissions tumbled to the lowest level since 1994; over the same period, real GDP climbed 56 percent, showing that greenhouse-gas cuts don't preclude economic growth.

Most recently, America’s carbon-cutting success has been fueled by a boom in cheap natural gas, which is driving out carbon-intensive coal. Increasing fuel efficiency in the nation’s auto fleet is also playing a role. The U.S. State Department reported in September that America is on track to reduce total emissions by 17 percent by 2020 from a 2005 benchmark, making good on a pledge made four years ago at UN climate talks in Copenhagen.

Those climate talks are set to resume Nov. 11 in Warsaw. In some ways, America’s decreasing rate of greenhouse-gas pollution reduces the impetus to impose new policy restrictions aimed at accomplishing the same goal. At the same time, wouldn’t it be nice if the U.S. leveraged its success to get other countries to do the same?

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