The U.S. Leads All Countries In Reducing Carbon Emissions

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt recently claimed that the U.S. leads the world in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The Washington Post disagrees, but Pruitt’s claim is on firm ground.

In a recent interview with Fox News, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt claimed: “We are leading the nation — excuse me — the world with respect to our CO2 footprint in reductions.”

The Washington Post fact-checked this claim and rated it “Three Pinocchios,” which means they rate the claim mostly false. They further wrote that Pruitt’s usage of data appeared to be a “deliberate effort to mislead the public.”

I agree that this is a nuanced issue, but the data mostly support Pruitt’s claim.

According to the 2017 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, since 2005 annual U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have declined by 758 million metric tons. That is by far the largest decline of any country in the world over that timespan and is nearly as large as the 770 million metric ton decline for the entire European Union.

By comparison, the second largest decline during that period was registered by the United Kingdom, which reported a 170 million metric ton decline. At the same time, China’s carbon dioxide emissions grew by 3 billion metric tons, and India’s grew by 1 billion metric tons.

Thus, I don’t think it’s the least bit misleading to claim that the U.S. is leading the world in reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

The Washington Post gets into per capita emissions, and indeed despite the decline, U.S. per capita emissions are still among the highest in the world. However, the Washington Post story claimed: “The United States may have had the largest decrease in carbon emissions, but it is still the largest per capita emitter.”

That’s not accurate either.

According to World Bank data, U.S. per capita carbon dioxide emissions rank 11th among countries. So, we are not the largest per capita emitter, but we do emit 2.2 times as much on a per capita basis as China. But, China has 4.3 times as many people, and that matters from an overall emissions perspective. China’s lower per capita carbon dioxide emissions are more than offset by its greater population, so China emits over 70% more carbon dioxide annually than the U.S.

The story quoted Pruitt a second time: “We have reduced our CO2 footprint by over 18 percent, almost 20 percent, from 2000 to 2014.” The Post also disputes this claim, citing EPA numbers that stated “energy-related CO2 emissions” have fallen by 7.5% since 2000.

I am not sure why anyone is using numbers from 2000, as U.S. carbon dioxide emissions continued to rise until 2005. That’s when they began to fall. Between 2005 and 2017, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions fell by 12.4% on an absolute basis and by 19.9% on a per capita basis. The per capita number is certainly consistent with Pruitt’s claims, though the date range isn’t.

When the Post asked the EPA about the discrepancy, a spokesperson said Pruitt “was referencing the CO2 footprint from energy-related industries,” based on a report from the Association of Air Pollution Control Agencies that says that “per capita energy-related carbon dioxide emissions were down 18.1 percent on average nationally.”

While the U.S. had the highest overall decline in carbon dioxide emissions, we didn’t have the largest percentage decline. Many European countries experienced declines of 20% to over 30%. At the same time, China’s carbon dioxide emissions increased by 50%, and India’s increased by 88%.

I understand that the Washington Post wants to push the fact that the U.S. is still a high per capita emitter, but that doesn’t contradict the points that Pruitt made.

Finally, one item left unsaid was the reason U.S. emissions have declined. It is no coincidence that U.S. emissions started to decline in 2005. That was the year U.S. shale gas production began a decade-long growth spurt.

Renewables also contributed, but the vast majority of the emissions decline in the U.S. can be attributed directly to natural gas substituting for coal in the power sector. (See Don’t Blame Renewable Energy For Dying U.S. Coal Industry for a deeper dive on this topic).

My verdict? Pruitt’s claim is entirely defensible, and on a nuanced topic like this certainly shouldn’t be considered mostly false. I think the Washington Post got this one wrong.

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4 thoughts on “The U.S. Leads All Countries In Reducing Carbon Emissions”

    1. That is true, and China is far less efficient at producing GDP than we are in the U.S. The last time I checked, they produce twice as much CO2 per dollar of GDP production, so anything shifted to China makes the problem much worse.

      However, that’s not the biggest factor that reduced U.S. emissions.

  1. So, if Pruitt meant to say that “per capita energy-related carbon dioxide emissions were down 18.1 percent on average nationally” from 2000 to 2014, how true is that? What is the actual number?

    1. That would be pretty close to accurate. The exact number depends on the data set he is looking at, but that’s definitely in the ballpark.

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