As a result, the United States was inadvertently postponed back on track to fulfill the commitments that the Obama administration made in the Paris climate agreement in December 2015, despite the fact that the Trump administration pulled the country out of the pact. Before 2020, the United States had lagged far behind its goals under the agreement.
Even so, net emissions are expected to be 6.4 percent lower after taking into account the exceptionally extreme forest fires which swept the west coast and the rocky mountains earlier this year, pumping carbon dioxide and other pollution into the air and compensating for much of the drop in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
An economic recovery in 2021 could further offset the drop in greenhouse gas emissions, says the BloombergNEF study. Without the impact of coronavirus, greenhouse gas emissions this year would have been just 1 percent lower than 2019, says the organization.
Scientists agree that the increase in greenhouse gases linked to human activity is raising global temperatures and, if not reduced, will cause irreversible damage to the planet.
“Like all major crises, there is a chance to turn this temporary drop in emissions into a more permanent one, making investments and changing policy, but it will not happen on its own,” Sarah Ladislaw, director of Energy Security and Change Program Climate Change at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an email.
“Nothing about the economic difficulties arising from COVID-19 points the way forward in climate change, except that it points out how often we discount our own systemic vulnerability,” she said. “Combating climate change requires a systematic and thorough review of our energy system.”
BloombergNEF analysts said the effects of the economic crisis would last until 2021 and that emissions next year could still be 5 percent lower than emissions in 2019. That level, said Thomas Rowlands-Rees, head of research at BloombergNEF at North America, can become a “new normal” if people change their driving habits and the energy sector continues to switch to renewable energy.
But the study says the United States is not very comfortable with that.
“The amount of pain we’ve had to go through a relatively modest drop shows that there needs to be a smarter policy and smarter thinking about emissions,” said Ethan Zindler, BloombergNEF’s head for the Americas. “The emphasis should not be on how to reduce demand, but on how to make the supply greener.”
This is happening to some extent in the energy sector, the study said. The 11% drop in emissions from the sector “was not purely attributable to a drop in consumption,” the report said. “It is a reflection of the long-term reductions in the intensity of emissions from the US energy sector.”
The biggest drop in emissions this year came from the transport sector, where emissions fell 14 percent, dragged by a sharp drop in air travel and car travel.
Kevin Book, managing director and head of energy research at ClearView Energy Partners, downplayed the latest figures. “You can get in shape or starve to death. Either way, you lose weight, ”said Book. “The goal of energy is to go places, do things, do things, enjoy things and we haven’t been going, made, manufactured or enjoyed nearly as much.”
“This is the feeling of cutting emissions in the worst possible way,” he said. Cutting emissions through a global pandemic “is still not enough to alter the stock of atmospheric carbon”.
President-elect Joe Biden has promised that on his first day in office, he will return to the United States in the Paris agreement. But the BloombergNEF study warns that the United States still “needs stronger policy commitments outside the energy sector to reach the 2025 target”.