Growing use of gas-fired power plants in the United States is helping, to a large extent, to drive down the country’s emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Since 2006, the United States has led the world in cutting CO2 emissions, the agency said recently.

CO2 emissions in the United States in 2011 fell by 92 million tons (MT), or 1.7%, primarily due to ongoing switching from coal to natural gas in power generation and an exceptionally mild winter, which reduced the demand for space heating.

U.S. emissions have now fallen by 430 MT (7.7%) since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions, according to IEA.

“This development has arisen from lower oil use in the transport sector (linked to efficiency improvements, higher oil prices and the economic downturn, which has cut vehicle miles traveled) and a substantial shift from coal to gas in the power sector,” IEA said.

Global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion reached a record high of 31.6 gigatons (GT) in 2011, according to preliminary estimates from the IEA. This represents an increase of 1.0 GT over 2010, or a 3.2% increase. Coal accounted for 45% of total energy-related CO2 emissions in 2011, followed by oil (35%) and natural gas (20%).

The 450 Scenario of the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2011 (see Daily GPI, May 30), which sets out an energy pathway consistent with a 50% chance of limiting the increase in the average global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius, requires CO2 emissions to peak at 32.6 GT no later than 2017, i.e., just 1.0 GT above 2011 levels.

The 450 Scenario projects a decoupling of CO2 emissions from global gross domestic product (GDP), but much still needs to be done to reach that goal as the rate of growth in CO2 emissions in 2011 exceeded that of global GDP, IEA said. “The new data provide further evidence that the door to a 2 degrees Celsius trajectory is about to close,” said IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol.

In 2011, a 6.1% increase in CO2 emissions in countries outside the OECD was only partly offset by a 0.6% reduction in emissions inside the OECD. China made the largest contribution to the global increase, with its emissions rising by 720 MT, or 9.3%, primarily due to higher coal consumption.

“What China has done over such a short period of time to improve energy efficiency and deploy clean energy is already paying major dividends to the global environment,” said Birol. China’s carbon intensity — the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of GDP — fell by 15% between 2005 and 2011. Had these gains not been made, China’s CO2 emissions in 2011 would have been higher by 1.5 GT.

India’s emissions rose by 140 MT, or 8.7%, moving it ahead of Russia to become the fourth largest emitter behind China, the United States, and the European Union. Despite these increases, per-capita CO2 emissions in China and India still remain just 63% and 15% of the OECD average, respectively, according to IEA.

CO2 emissions in the European Union in 2011 were lower by 69 MT, or 1.9%, as sluggish economic growth cut industrial production and a relatively warm winter reduced heating needs. By contrast, Japan’s emissions increased by 28 MT, or 2.4%, as a result of a substantial increase in the use of fossil fuels in power generation following the nuclear power catastrophe at Fukushima.

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