The economic halt caused by COVID-19 is expected to decrease global carbon emissions by 5% in 2020, the largest annual decline ever, according to an April 9 analysis from Carbon Brief. U.S. power sector emissions are expected to drop 7.5% this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's latest Short-Term Energy Outlook released last week.
Meanwhile, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions rose 2.9% in 2018 above 2017 levels, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's 2020 inventory of economy-wide U.S. emissions, released Monday. But the longer-term trend is toward an emissions decline, according to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who credited the 2018 rise with a colder winter and hotter summer along with increased power demand.
Power sector emissions in 2018 were 27% below 2005 levels, while overall greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 10%. In order to meet the U.S. goals set under the Paris Climate Agreement, which many utilities, corporations and climate experts still use as a reference point despite the U.S. signaling their intent to pull out of the accord in 2017, the U.S. needs to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.
Climate experts were quick to note one potential upside of an economic shutdown early on in the pandemic: In the short term, less air pollution, which could lead to longer-term climate policy improvements.
Less transportation use and less demand on the power sector as fewer commercial businesses operate are two major drivers of the decrease in air pollution. Grid operators reported last week a 5% to 15% load decline across regions, and EIA is predicting electricity demand from the commercial sector will drop 4.7% overall in 2020. Retail power sales will fall close behind, expected to dip 4.2% this year.
Residential power use will take the smallest hit at 0.8%. Demand was expected to drop more this year because of mild weather, but because so many people are staying home, that dip has been tapered, according to EIA.. Overall power sector demand is expected to drop 3%.
The majority of that hit will be seen by coal operators, according to EIA, which predicts coal-fired generation will decrease 20% this year compared to 2019, while natural gas is expected to rise 1% and renewable energy by 11%. Previous estimates by the Rhodium Group found power sector emissions declined 10% in 2019, largely due to coal plant retirements.
But despite short-term emissions declines due to decreased power demand, the U.S. clean energy sector is anticipated to take a hit from the coronavirus disruptions, according to EIA, and emissions related to the power sector are expected to jump 3.6% in 2021 as the economy recovers. Wind and solar additions in the U.S. are expected to fall 5% and 10% in 2020, respectively, below previous estimates, according to EIA.
And even with massive decline in carbon emissions anticipated globally, the world's long-term path is still far from the GHG reductions needed to prevent an average temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, according to Carbon Brief, which scientists say is necessary to prevent the most drastic environmental impacts of climate change.
Global energy-related emissions have increased 24% above 2005 levels according to the EPA. Transportation in 2018 made up the majority of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, followed by electric power.