Spike in coal use helped push U.S. greenhouse gas emissions higher in 2021

·Senior Editor
·3 min read

In 2021, greenhouse gas emissions rose by 6.2 percent over the previous year thanks in part to a dramatic surge in coal-fired electricity, according to preliminary data released Monday. 

The report, issued by the Rhodium Group, found that as the U.S. economy rebounded from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the price of natural gas spiked, electricity generated by burning coal rose 17 percent nationwide. 

“Emissions grew even faster than the economic recovery, and that was largely the rebound in coal generation,” Kate Larsen, co-author of the Rhodium Group report, told CNN.

In addition to an uptick in coal generation, the American transportation sector, “which accounts for 31% of net US emissions,” according to the report, also rebounded from pandemic lows, resulting in an increase in the use of diesel fuel to power trucks. 

Coal, which the Rhodium Group said accounts for 28 percent of net U.S. emissions, has long been targeted by experts as the low-hanging fruit in the fight against climate change. More than 40 nations agreed in November at U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, to phase out coal, by far the dirtiest fossil fuel, as an energy source over the next two decades. The U.S., however, was not one of them. 

While coal consumption rose in relation to the price of natural gas in 2021, its future as an energy source remains tenuous, and the rise in coal consumption last year was the first seen since 2014, according to the report. Most climate experts agree that ditching coal is essential to achieve global pledges on greenhouse gas emissions. This would include President Biden’s vow to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050. 

PacifiCorp's Hunter coal-fired power plant
PacifiCorp's Hunter coal-fired power plant in Castle Dale, Utah. (George Frey/AFP via Getty Images)

"Consigning coal to history is a process, not solvable in an instant," Pauline Heinrichs, policy adviser at EG3, a European climate change think tank, said in a statement following the deal signed in Glasgow to phase out coal. "The progress this week has seen major coal-burning countries commit to a coal exit, along with the creation of the tools, partnerships and money needed to help them do this."

Despite the year-over-year rise in greenhouse gas emissions, the amount of atmospheric pollution by the U.S. remains below a record level set in 2005. But Biden's Build Back Better spending bill is stalled in the Senate, and the chances of cutting the country's emissions in half by 2050 are viewed as all but impossible without its passage.

The biggest roadblock for Democrats is Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the second-largest coal-producing state in the nation. Yet the powerful coal miners’ union, the United Mine Workers of America, has come out in favor of passing Build Back Better and is pressuring Manchin to support it. 

“We urge Senator Manchin to revisit his opposition to this legislation and work with his colleagues to pass something that will help keep coal miners working and have a meaningful impact on our members, their families and their communities,” Cecil Roberts, UMWA president, said in a December statement. 

While the overall aim of the Biden administration is to transition away from coal so as to meet greenhouse gas emissions targets, backsliding on coal generation poses a further challenge to achieving those goals. 

“The uptick in GHG emissions in 2021 moves the country even further from meeting its Paris Agreement climate target of reducing emissions 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030,” the Rhodium Group report stated. 

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