The U.S. cut carbon emissions by the largest margin on record during 2020, according to the ninth Sustainable Energy in America Factbook by the Business Council for Sustainable Energy and BloombergNEF.
The 9% decrease in emissions puts the U.S. on track to achieve the 2025 Paris climate goal; however, a return to normal economic conditions could cause emissions to rebound, particularly as the transportation sector recovers, according to Ethan Zindler, Head of Americas for BloombergNEF.
Zindler said he expected the power sector, which did not see as great a decline in demand during the pandemic, was likely to continue to decarbonize despite the likelihood of increased emissions in the future from other industries.
Energy overall took a greater hit during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 than the overall U.S. economy, according to the latest Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, but electricity — renewable energy, in particular — proved more resilient.
Total U.S. energy use declined 7.8% year over year in 2020, the largest decline in three decades and greater than the overall slowing of the U.S. economy, which contracted 3.5%. Various energy sectors, however, experienced very different years, with transportation demand falling 14.4%, while demand for electricity dipped just 3.8%.
Renewable energy, on the other hand, posted another year of record growth, with production rising 11% to generate a fifth of total power produced in 2020. Coal, on the other hand, now accounts for just under 19% of power generation.
Increased renewable energy generation, coupled with overall decreased energy use, resulted in a "remarkable decline" in carbon emissions in 2020, putting the U.S. on a path to achieve its target 26-28% reduction in emissions by 2025, Zindler said. He was, however, not optimistic that the progress would continue.
"Achieving Paris under more normal circumstances is really quite challenging," Zindler told reporters during a Wednesday briefing. "Emissions from the power sector emissions are not really moving. ... Power does continue to decarbonize, and I think that will continue to happen. The transportation sector will not necessarily get there without policies and regulations, so without that sharp drop caused by the pandemic, emissions will rise this year."
Zindler also noted that power sector emissions have already exceeded the pace that would be required to meet the goals established by the Clean Power Plan.
Corporate sustainability initiatives continue to drive demand for new renewable energy generation, said Paul Camuti, chief technology and strategy officer for Trane Technologies. However, the Factbook report noted that although the U.S. added a record 33.62 GW of new solar and wind in 2020, the number of corporate power purchase agreements signed last year actually slowed.
The power sector also lost 300,000-400,000 jobs during the pandemic, according to Lisa Jacobson, president of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. While the majority of utility sector employees have returned to work, she said residential energy services, such as rooftop solar installations and energy efficiency, have taken a larger hit.
"In solar and solar-plus-storage, there was a jolt, and a steep drop with incredible job losses," said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. "But as companies have innovated, job numbers have come up."
Now, she added, is the industry's chance to be more intentional as those jobs come back about filling them with diverse employees who reflect the populations they serve.