Despite a record number coal plant closures across the United States, the country’s power sector still experienced a rise in carbon emissions in 2018.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wednesday issued its annual report on emissions. The agency estimated that carbon dioxide output from U.S. power plants rose 0.6 percent in 2018 from the previous year, climbing to nearly 1.93 billion tons. The rise in carbon emissions can be largely sourced to the country’s growing economy, which spurned a five percent rise in electric generation over the year.
The report demonstrates the difficultly in lowering the country’s carbon emissions in the wake of a growing economy — even when coal plants are shuttering at a dramatic rate.
The U.S. power market hasn’t been a friendly environment for coal. Faced against subsidy-backed renewables, cheap natural gas, and burdensome regulations, coal-fired plants across the country are retiring quickly with no signs of a revival on the horizon. Altogether, 14 gigawatts of coal capacity at 20 different power plants closed down last year, not counting the coal plants that were switched to natural gas or idled. It was the second-highest year for coal plant retirements in U.S. history.
The demise of the coal industry has been welcome news for environmental activists who believe its eradication is tantamount to reducing greenhouse gases and combating climate change.
However, as the EPA report shows, numerous other factors contribute to carbon emission numbers.
Electricity demand naturally runs in tandem with economic growth — and the U.S. economy soared in 2018, growing at its fastest rate in well over a decade. While policymakers continue to direct their climate change efforts onto the power sector, other sources of carbon emissions continue to rise, such as the country’s transportation sector. Additionally, the demise of coal has been largely offset by growing demand for natural gas and oil.
While carbon emissions rose last year, other pollutants did decline. The EPA reported that nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants dropped in 2018, declining by four percent and six percent respectively.
“These data show that America is enjoying ever cleaner air as our economy grows, and the U.S. continues as a global leader in clean air progress,” EPA associate administrator Bill Wehrum said in a released statement Wednesday.
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