When it comes to fighting global warming a new study claims it’s the economy, stupid.
A new study says the plunge in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions often attributed to fuel-switching from coal to natural gas was actually the result of the financial crisis and recession that rocked the country early in President Barack Obama’s first term.
Researchers with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis argue the 11 percent reduction in U.S. CO2 emissions from 2007 to 2013 was mainly due to the recession, and only a small amount was due to the increased use of natural gas.
“After 2007, decreasing emissions were largely a result of economic recession with changes in fuel mix (for example, substitution of natural gas for coal) playing a comparatively minor role,” the study found.
The study has been sent around as evidence that natural gas is not as “climate-friendly” as proponents say it is. Natural gas is often billed as more eco-friendly than coal because it emits fewer CO2 emissions than coal when burned to produce electricity.
“Natural gas emits half as much CO2 as coal when used to make electricity,” said IIASA researcher and lead author Laixiang Sun said in a statement. “This calculation fails to take into account the release of methane from natural-gas wells and pipelines, which also contributes to climate change.”
Environmentalists and liberal news sites used the study to undercut claims that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is reducing emissions. Activists have used the study to claim reduced consumption, also known as a recession, and energy efficiency programs are doing more to fight global warming.
“In other words, what worked was cutting consumption and being more efficient – not fracking,” according to the environmentalist blog Desmogblog.
That may be the case, but there’s a flip side that environmentalists have not talked about. If increased use of natural gas was not a major reason for plunging CO2 emissions, it means Obama administration regulations have also done little to lower emissions.
Much of the fuel-switching from coal to natural gas is due to EPA regulations aimed at phasing out coal-fired power generation and getting utilities to use more natural gas and green energy, like solar and wind.
Environmental activists, often working with the EPA, have also sued hundreds of coal plant operators to get them to prematurely retire their plants or convert them to burning natural gas. EPA regulations are projected to shutter 90 gigawatts of coal-fired power by 2040, with most retirements happening before 2020.
That’s not to say EPA regulations will have no impact on CO2 emissions in the future, but the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis study suggests agency rules and the economic factors of fossil fuels have had little effect on emissions so far.
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