Environmental Issues > Global Warming Main Page > All Global Warming Documents

The Bush administration's voluntary approach to global warming focuses on reducing emissions intensity -- the ratio of carbon dioxide to a measure of economic output. But under the administration's plan, even as emissions intensity improves, total emissions will keep on rising. To combat global warming effectively, the government must focus its policy on reducing the total amount of heat-trapping pollution in the atmosphere.

Emissions intensity is the ratio of carbon dioxide emissions to a measure of economic output. For the economy as a whole, emissions intensity is usually expressed as emissions per dollar of gross domestic product. For the electricity sector, emissions intensity is usually expressed as emissions per kilowatt-hour of electricity generation.

Emissions Intensity vs. Total Emissions

Total emissions can keep increasing as emissions intensity improves. Indeed, the emissions intensity of the U.S. economy has improved for 30 years -- partly because energy efficiency has improved, and partly because economic growth has been faster in relatively clean sectors, such as information technology and services. Nevertheless, total U.S. emissions have grown steadily because the economy has grown faster than the rate of emission intensity improvement:

  • Since 1990 the carbon dioxide intensity of the U.S. economy fell by 20 percent. But GDP grew by 46 percent over this period. Hence, total carbon dioxide emissions increased by 17 percent.

  • The carbon dioxide intensity of electricity production has improved by only 3 percent since 1990. Electricity consumption grew by 30 percent over this period while total carbon dioxide emissions from electricity production grew by 26 percent.1

Unless emissions intensity improves faster than the economy grows, total emissions just keep rising.

Falling Behind

Two years ago, President Bush said it was his goal to "slow, stop and reverse" U.S. global warming emissions growth. He set a target of reducing the emissions intensity of the U.S. economy by 18 percent between 2002 and 2012.

The administration plan relies only on voluntary action to meet this target. But even if this target is met, total U.S. global warming emissions will still increase by 14 percent between 2002 and 2012 -- exactly the same rate as they grew in the 1990s.2

Administration Plan: Total U.S. Carbon Pollution Will Continue to Grow 14% Per Decade

The reason is that the president's target for improving emissions intensity is less than the expected rate of economic growth.

Mirroring the administration's overall plan, the electric power industry has reached a voluntary agreement with the Energy Department that will keep increasing this sector's carbon dioxide pollution indefinitely.

Under the industry plan, announced in December 2004, the emissions intensity of electric power production will improve by 3 percent to 5 percent between 2002 and 2012. Given expected increases in electricity production, this means that power plant emissions will grow by 15 percent to 17.5 percent over this period -- about the same rate as the Energy Information Administration's business-as-usual projections.3

Pulling Even, But Barely

Recently the National Commission on Energy Policy recommended a mandatory cap on U.S. global warming gas emissions, also structured in terms of emissions intensity. As a mandatory program that would eventually stop the growth of global warming pollution, the NCEP proposal is a step up from the administration's approach. But the plan would not reduce total emissions.

The NCEP calls for improving emissions intensity by 2.4 percent per year from 2010 to 2020 (slowing emissions growth) and by 2.8 percent per year thereafter (stopping emissions growth). (Although the chart below shows a "reverse" growth phase, the NCEP did not recommend specific policies to achieve this objective.)

NCEP Commission Climate Proposal Timeline

Source: NCEP (2005)

Being More Intense About It

It is possible to frame a policy in terms of emissions intensity and still reduce overall emissions. To do that, government policy must make emissions intensity improve faster than economic growth. That requires a more ambitious emissions intensity target.

Hard to Measure

Even so, using emissions intensity as the metric poses significant implementation difficulties. Using a metric of emissions intensity is most feasible in industries that produce a highly uniform product. The best example is electricity, production of which is uniformly measured in kilowatt-hours. Another example may be cement production.

But most industries produce a range of non-standardized products. There are many types of steel, aluminum, or chemical outputs, and different mixes of such outputs at different plants. The lack of standardization makes it more difficult to use an emissions-per-unit-of-output metric.

An option is to measure emissions-per-dollar-value-of-output. The problem here is that fluctuations in the cost of other inputs or in the price obtained for products can randomly affect an industry's apparent emissions intensity.

Keep Your Eye on Total Emissions

In the end, the atmosphere doesn't care about emissions intensity. Global warming is caused by the total amount of heat-trapping pollution in the atmosphere.

So while emissions intensity can be a useful way to examine emissions trends, what matters to the environment is total emissions. The bottom line is that we can't solve the global warming problem by increasing emissions, regardless of how trends are expressed.

 

Notes

1. U.S. EPA (2005), "Draft Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2003." at ES-24. yosemite.epa.gov/oar/globalwarming.nsf/content/ResourceCenterPublicationsGHGEmissionsUSEmissionsInventory2005.html

2. NRDC (2002), "Untangling the Accounting Gimmicks in White House Global Warming, Pollution Plans," www.nrdc.org/globalWarming/agwcon.asp.

3. The power sector's pledge is contained in "Climate Vision Memorandum of Understanding Between the United States Electric Power Sector and the Department of Energy (Dec. 13, 2004), www.climatevision.gov/sectors/electricpower/pdfs/powerpartners_mou.pdf. The pledge is to reduce the average emissions intensity during 2010-2012 by 3-5 percent from the 2000-2002 average. Given the Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecast of electricity generation growth over this period, this translates into 15-17.5 percent total emission growth. The EIA forecast of emissions growth over the same period is about 17.8 percent. (EIA emission data for 2000-2002 compiled from "Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2003," (Table 11), ftp.eia.doe.gov/pub/oiaf/1605/cdrom/pdf/ggrpt/057303.pdf; EIA emissions projections for 2010-2012 compiled from "Annual Energy Outlook 2005," www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/aeoref_tab.html (Table 18).)

last revised 8/23/2005

All Tags [ View Popular Tags ]:
AB 1493
AB 32
ACES
agriculture
air pollution
air quality
Alaska
algae
Arctic
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
asthma
automakers
biodiesel
biofuels
cabon
California
cap 2.0
cap and trade
carbon assessment
carbon capture and storage
carbon dioxide
carbon emissions
carbon footprint
carbon offsets
carbon pollution
carbon standard
caribou
cars
causes of global warming
CCS
Chile
china
Clean air
Clean Air Act
clean energy
clean energy economy
climate
Climate Action Plan
climate change
climate disruption
climate disruption tax
climate legislation
Climate Security Act
coal
coal plants
coal-fired power plants
coastal flooding
consequences
coral
DanLashof
dirty fuels
drilling
drought
earth day
economy
Elizabeth Kolbert
emissions
endangered species
endangered species protection
energy
energy efficiency
energy efficient buildings
energy policy
energy security
environmental protection agency
EPA
extreme weather
farming
fish & fishing
flooding
floods
florida
food
Forests
fuel
fuel efficiency standards
fuel savings
Gary Braasch
gas prices
global warming and health
global warming and the economy
global warming emissions
global warming emissions copenhagen accord
global warming legislation
global warming treaties
Great Lakes
Great Lakes National Parks
green buildings
green jobs
green sports
greenhouse gas
greenhouse gas emissions
greenhouse gas regulations
greenhouse gases
grizzly bear
growing green awards
habitat loss
Harmful Algal Blooms
health
health effects
health effects of pollution
health impacts
heat
heat wave
heat waves
holiday
hurricane
hurricane Irene
Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Sandy
hurricanes
hybrid
hybrid vehicles
India
India Initiative
infrastructure
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
International
international agreements
interviews
IPCC
KellyHenderson
KimKnowlton
Kyoto protocol
Latin America
LCFS
legislation
liquid coal
livestock
marine conservation
Massachussetts v EPA
mccain leiberman
mccain-leiberman bill
McKinsey
melting ice and glaciers
Mexico
MiriamRotkin-Ellman
Montreal Protocol
mortality
mountain pine beetle
mountaintop removal mining
national parks
natural gas
new energy economy
nuclear energy
ocean acidification
ocean policy
ocean pollution
oil
oil shale
oil shale development
oil shale development in colorado river basin
oil shale impact on water
ozone
PeteAltman
photos
polar bears
polar ice cap
policy
pollution
power plants
public transportation
record-high temperatures
refrigerants
renewable energy
renewable energy/clean energy
renewables
respiratory illness
Rocky Mountains
salmon
Sandy
sb375
science
sea levels
sea-level rise
ski
smart growth
smog air pollution
solar power
solutions
species protection
sprawl
storms
Supreme Court
sustainable communities
tar sands
tennessee
testimony
tourism
toxic waste
transportation
transportation bill
trout
U.S.
VEETC
vehicle emissions
vehicles
water
water supply
water sustainability
weather
Western Arctic
what you can do
white bark pine
whitebark pine
Wilderness Preservation
wildfires
wildlife
winter sports
Yellowstone

Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter

See the latest issue >

This Is Global Warming

YouTube Video
Watch the Video »

Our new video shows the effects of global warming in the world today.

Give the Gift That Will Make a Difference: Clean Energy Boost

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.


Donate now >

Share | |
Find NRDC on
YouTube