Cracks In The Greenhouse?

Reduced emissions and growth may be compatible after all

Since 1990, U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide have risen and fallen with the nation's economic output. Emissions last dropped when energy demand fell during the recession of 1991, and since then they have grown an average of nearly 2% each year, as the booming economy demanded greater use of fossil fuels. The burning of fossil fuels is the primary source of carbon dioxide, the most important of the so-called greenhouse gases, which can trap the sun's heat and lead to global warming. And the U.S. belches out 23% of the world's emission total.

During the 1990s, this link between prosperity and growing fuel use led many to conclude that efforts to limit CO2 emissions--to forestall global warming--would stifle economic growth.

Now, however, it seems the connection between economic growth and carbon dioxide emissions is not so strong. The Energy Information Administration, the Energy Dept. agency responsible for analysis and forecasting, found that 1998 emissions of carbon dioxide were only 0.4% above 1997 levels. The near-flattening of emissions growth occurred even as the economy grew at a roaring 3.9% and as oil prices hit a 12-year low.

"It isn't really clear what caused things to flatten out the way they did," says Eileen Claussen, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans & International Environmental & Scientific Affairs who is now executive director of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a Washington think tank. It's too soon to tell whether the drop in emissions growth was a one-time event or the beginning of a trend, Claussen says.

Last year was unusual: The El Nino current produced a warm winter, leading to a drop in the use of fossil fuels for heating. Manufacturing disruptions brought on by the Asian economic crisis also led to a drop in energy use.

It's also possible, however, that changes in the economy--such as shifts to knowledge-based services and the explosive growth of the Internet--are allowing more economic growth without more fuel consumption. All the Energy Information Administration can say is that consumption of coal, oil, and natural gas was down last year. (Its carbon dioxide emissions estimates are computed from figures on energy use.)

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that the earth's temperatures could rise by 2F to 6F by 2100, depending partly upon how fast carbon dioxide levels rise. Environmentalists have urged that emissions be cut now to head off the dire effects of such a temperature rise, which include the disruption of agriculture, alteration of weather patterns, and a rise in sea level that could flood coastal populations around the world. Some industry advocates have objected, fearing that cuts in emissions could hamper economic growth.

Patrick J. Michaels, a climatologist at the conservative Cato Institute, believes last year's drop in the emissions curve was a fluke. "El Nino flattened it!" he insists. He is confident that rapid emissions growth will return with colder temperatures.

"DOWNWARD TRAJECTORY." Not so, says Howard Geller, director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit conservation group. He argues that the weather wouldn't have affected industrial emissions--and they dropped 1.2% in 1998. Instead, Geller points to a recent drop in U.S. "energy intensity"--the amount of energy it takes to produce a dollar of gross domestic product. "We've been on a downward trajectory over the last few years," Geller says, and it is finally starting to show up in the emissions figures.

Geller and other environmentalists are hoping these figures will help change the national debate on climate change policy. The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement drawn up in December, 1997, requires the U.S. to limit its emissions of all greenhouse gases, during the period 2008 to 2012, to an average of 7% below 1990 levels. But ratification has been stalled by fears that the costs of such emissions reductions will be too steep.

STRATEGIC REDUCTIONS. Exxon Corp., one of the Kyoto agreement's most vocal critics, has said that meeting the treaty's emission-reduction guidelines would require energy price hikes that would cost each American family $2,000 per year. But last year's figures show that emissions can fall without higher energy prices, says Former Assistant Energy Secretary Joseph J. Romm. In a new book called Cool Companies: How the Best Businesses Boost Profits and Productivity by Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Romm describes dozens of companies that have prospered while reducing emissions. "Global climate change is making carbon mitigation a strategic corporate investment," he says. He predicts that annual reductions in energy intensity of 5% will become commonplace by the 2008 to 2012 period.

"More and more companies are moving quickly on this issue," agrees Paul Tebo, vice-president for safety, health, & environment at DuPont Co. Since 1991, the chemicals giant has invested $50 million in greenhouse-gas abatement. It expects to achieve a 45% reduction in emissions by 2000.

Cracks in the Greenhouse?

It's no surprise that companies are cutting their emissions, says Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming & Energy Program. In most cases, Becker says, "cutting energy consumption is cheaper than free."

For the time being, the Clinton Administration remains cautious about the implications of the new emissions figures. A senior State Dept. official calls the report "a one-year snapshot" that won't be enough to change international perceptions of U.S. emissions trends. But even a snapshot seems to be enough to start a thousand arguments on this most contentious of environmental issues.

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