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COVID-19, high unemployment, as well as a rise of cleaner energy sources all contributed to lower greenhouse gas emissions responsible for overheating the planet and amplifying violent weather around the world.
Early 2020 witnessed the largest worldwide reduction of greenhouse gases ever seen, according to the World Meteorological Organization, as COVID-19 drove much of the global economic activity to a near standstill. Data released by the US Environmental Protection Agency this month shows that climate emissions at a state and local level also decreased for the year.
Nationally, energy consumption in 2020 fell 7 percent, according to the US Energy Information Administration, with the biggest drops in climate pollution coming from power plants. Roughly 174 million metric tons of greenhouse gases linked to power production were shed nationally off of 2019’s 1.66 trillion metric tonnage total, the EPA data shows, a 10.4-percent drop.
Energy use in Texas, by comparison, fell by less than 1 percent, while industry in the state shaved 23.5 million metric tons less greenhouse gases compared to 2019, a six percent drop. Texas’s remaining 360.2 million metric tons show the long way there is to go toward zeroing out the climate-destablizing pollution in the coming years according to what science shows is necessary to head off the worst manifestations of the global climate crisis.
What gains Texas saw came from a significant decline in coal use and a corresponding rise in wind power consumption.
While total national climate emissions are still being finalized, preliminary data suggests more than 10 percent drop.
San Antonio emissions, mostly generated by CPS Energy fossil fuel-fired power plants, saw a drop of roughly 10.5 percent in point-source industrial emissions. CPS Energy calculates its own 2020 reductions at 12 percent.
A CPS spokesperson credited lower energy consumption, a shift to cleaner energy sources, and energy efficiency programs for the decline.
“Our customers’ energy needs vary from year to year depending on factors such as weather and customer growth and, in the case of 2020, the pandemic,” the spokesperson said.
“Customer growth was offset by declining energy usage due to the effectiveness of our award-winning energy efficiency and conservation measures.”
“Our generation mix varies depending on unit maintenance outages and availability of renewables. Over the years, we have increased generation from lower-emitting sources like natural gas and renewables, which also contributes to a lower amount of carbon dioxide emissions.”
There were also fewer “heating- and cooling-degree days” in 2020 than 2019, they added. Asked to define those terms and other points for clarification, CPS failed to respond.
San Antonio’s population grew a little over two percent in 2020, but CPS Energy was still able to throttle back on the coal plant, data suggests, powering the SK Spruce coal plant at only 45 percent capacity, as opposed to 57 percent in 2019. Gas use fell slightly also.
CPS did not respond to requests for clarification on the change in total demand by press deadline, but it is likely they were picking up more wind and solar from purchase agreements.
The EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory includes facility-level, or point-source, emissions from (mostly) large industrial operators. This covers most of the greenhouse pollution included in San Antonio’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory. It doesn’t reflect land use changes across the region, the pressure of heavy consumption and development (including impact of deforestation/habitat destruction here and elsewhere), or transportation.
About 40 percent of local emissions—or 6.9 million metric tons—is tied to transportation not represented. Power production’s full share in the City’s inventory is about 45 percent.
Compare 2020 emissions for Bexar County (above) with 2019 (below)
Texas A&M-based climate scientist Andrew Dessler suggested that the COVID-year numbers suggest to him that “we cannot reduce emissions by trying to reduce economic activity and consumption.”
“The only way we can do it is by replacing our fossil fuel energy infrastructure with an energy system that does not release carbon into the atmosphere,” Dessler said. “Even with the economic pain and loss of activity from COVID shutdowns, emissions were not reduced very much.”
The World Meteorological Organization logged COVID’s impact in early 2020 as “the largest annual drop [of GHG] ever recorded in absolute values” but would likely agree with Dessler’s larger point about any enduring gains. Governments and private industry the world over have put the machinery in motion to ensure the COVID collapse be consigned to “temporary blip” status, as the WMO wrote recently.
But clearly, the intense economic assault of an unplanned global pandemic is very different from carefully crafting economic policies intended to discourage socioecologically injurious behaviors and reward practices that breathe life into our families, communities, and earth. This work remains before us as both local-level and international climate planners have found the only way to reach the massive cuts needed to stabilize the earth’s climate is to include changes in consumption patterns, though these efforts continue to receive far less attention that the most obvious offenders, like coal plants.
A look back over 10 years shows our share of the 2020 “blip” wasn’t as significant as compared to those seen in 2014-2015 (reflecting a rise of gas use) or 2018-2019 (the retiring of ‘Dirty’ Deely coal plant). What it does is press the question of what’s next.
The trend may be downward, but the problem is the pace of reductions. They are not nearly enough. And they are not consistent enough. (San Antonio’s greenhouse emissions actually rose locally in 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2017.)
Below is an illustration of what needs to happen to avoid ushering in devastating (and potentially irreversible) changes with 1.5-degrees of additional planetary warming, according to a consortium of international researchers publishing through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:
Zoom in on our decade above. Seriously. The message here is that this is absolutely the decade we need to cut global emissions by half or more.
San Antonio’s own climate plan sets a goal for 2030 of reductions between 41 percent (the “minimum acceptable reduction”) and 55 percent, referred to as the “high reduction potential (IPCC 1.5°F global pathway)”. Yet, as we wrote last week, CPS Energy has no plan to make its own corresponding reductions to meet that 2030 target.
A note below from the City’s climate plan.
Translation: San Antonio’s target must be a minimum of 55 percent by 2030.
- INTERIM GHG REDUCTION TARGETS
- The pathway towards the goal of carbon neutrality is critically important. A straight-line approach of 0.5 MtCO2e annual reduction in community emissions, will likely not be enough to limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F). As such, San Antonio sets the straight-line path to the target as the minimum acceptable reduction for the City and has built a potential reduction range that also reflects a more stringent reductions pathway, referencing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 1.5°C (2.7°F) global pathway. The City will continue to refine the range of interim targets as the results of near-term reduction measures are quantified.
While San Antonians adopt an increasingly dim view of the utility, CEO Paula Gold-Williams continues to win prestigious seats on the national stage. Days before the new greenhouse numbers were released, the US Department of Energy announced she had been tapped to join the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board (SEAB).
Gold-Williams said she was “extremely humbled to join my esteemed colleagues” at the SEAB. “I am looking forward to working with them and to providing input on how best to achieve the Department of Energy priorities,” she said.
Cleaning up the mess made by past bad energy decisions top the department’s 2021 priorities. So things should feel familiar in that way, at least.
We asked why CPS, our largest polluter, is not committing to any firm 2030 deadlines, including those in the City climate plan, and CPS’s press office responded:
“In addition to that 2050 goal [of net zero emissions], we did make a commitment to reduce our overall carbon emissions by 80% by 2040 compared to a baseline year of 2016. … Our Flexible Path Resource Plan is available online and has multiple pathways to help us move towards that net-zero 2050 goal along with the two CAAP interim targets for 2030 and 2040.”
The utility’s failure to agree to the 2030 target in the City’s climate plan worries Alyssa Burgin, co-founder of the advocacy organization Texas Drought Project.
“All climate frameworks are calling for a minimum of 45-50 percent reduction in emissions by 2030, because that is the only way to stand a chance of remaining under 1.5 degrees Celsius in temperature rise,” Burgin wrote Deceleration. ”Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, has warned that if we remain on the present course, without setting 2030 goals, we’re going to see an INCREASE of 16% and we’ll be on a pathway to a disastrous 2.7 degrees warming. Not sustainable in the least.
“San Antonio needs to match those cuts or they’ll be part of the problem, not part of the solution.”
Additional highlights from the EPA’s new data
San Antonio’s Carbon Goliath
Reflecting the rise of gas in SA’s mix
Cement Plants Don’t Quit
Notable in the new GHG data are the cement plants: the only sector with an overall 2020 increase in pollution.
Check out the rest of the Bexar County sites here and search by year or location.
Around the state
Refineries in Nueces County fell from 8.2 to 7.9 mmt while power plants slipped from 2.6 to 2.3 mmt and the chemical sector stayed roughly static around 2.9 mmt.
Power plant pollution rose slightly in Harris County, from 14.2 mmt to 14.4 mmt, while chemical production slouched 15.7 to 15 mmt and refineries tipped from 19.3 to 18.7 mmt.
Ector County’s numbers are dominated by Luminant Odessa-Ector Power Plant, 2.5M of 4M total metric tons in 2020 (down from 4.79 in 2019). The plant itself is down from 2.87mmt in 2019.
Rare upswing. 573.3 mmt of emissions tied to petroleum and gas systems increased to 690.136 mmt for a countywide total of 808.6 mmt in 2020, the largest ever recorded for Midland County.
Virtually no change. 2.97 mmt to 2.89 mmt. Biggest sector improvement in waste sector.
Petroleum and gas systems traded placed with the waste sector in Dallas County in 2020. Fossil fuels grew from 1.296 mmt to 1.237 mmt, while waste shrunk from 1.349 mmt to 1.191 mmt.
The most significant reductions in Tarrant County happened at the Handley Generating gas plant, where emissions declined from 427.3 thousand metric tons to 388.6 thousand metric tons, with an overall countywide reductions of 93,000.
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