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More on Natural Gas’ Role in ‘Decoupling’ Economic Growth, Emissions

Kate Wallace

Kate Wallace
Posted December 9, 2016

The concept that economic growth doesn’t have to be accompanied by rising carbon emissions – dubbed “decoupling” by the New York Times – has additional detail in a new Brookings Institution report that finds more than 30 states have seen those historical partners delinked and headed in different directions.

Though Brookings credits state and local efforts for the majority of this emissions reduction progress between 2000 and 2014, cleaner-burning natural gas is the real hero. It can’t be ignored that of the 34 states where economic growth and carbon emissions growth have been decoupled, two-thirds use natural gas as a primary or secondary fuel source in power generation. In 11 states, the average percentage of net electricity generation from natural gas as a primary fuel was 56.1 percent in 2014. And, in 11 additional states natural gas was the secondary fuel used in power generation at an average of 22.3 percent. Brookings:

[I]t is clear that many states have made progress in delinking emissions from growth through the replacement of coal-burning power plants with natural gas-fired plants or, in some cases, renewables. Nuclear generation and changes in states’ industrial structure have played a role as well. And while formal statistical analyses of the role of clean energy policy in decarbonization are also beyond the scope of this study, it is fair to say that state- and city-level policy choices have also contributed to decoupling and decarbonization. In short … state-level policy choices and economic trends have fostered solid momentum that in many places could proceed even without federal leadership.

Even a slight increase in the amount of natural gas used in power generation results in significant reductions in energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. For example, over the study period Delaware increased natural gas use by 13.4 percent, which ultimately translated into a 20 percent decrease in energy-related emissions, according to report data. Connecticut had a much smaller increase in natural gas use (9.4 percent), but  still managed to see a 17.7 percent decrease in emissions. In both of these states, natural gas mostly displaced the use of coal in power generation.

As a whole, since 2005, the U.S. economy has grown even as energy-related carbon emissions have fallen. Brookings’ chart:

us_decoupling

In 2015, the economy was 15 percent larger than in 2005, while the U.S. used 15 percent less energy and produced 23 percent fewer energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. Further, carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation were at their lowest levels in over 20 years in 2015, thanks in large part to the increased use of natural gas. And this trend is expected to continue, with EIA projecting that natural gas use in electricity generation will reach record levels this year.

Brookings is right: It is possible to have a growing economy while also reducing energy-related emissions. Our country has become a global leader in emissions reductions, and it is in large part due to the shale revolution. Without natural gas, emissions reductions wouldn’t be where they are today. Over the past decade, our energy revolution has unlocked vast resources of natural gas that will provide our country the tools necessary to remain a global leader in emissions reductions. 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Wallace is an associate of research and content development for the American Petroleum Institute. Before joining API, she was at America’s Natural Gas Alliance as a researcher and policy analyst. Kate came to the DC area for graduate school in 2012 and has been here ever since. She loves taking her dogs on hikes, exploring the city, travelling, navigating the northern Virginia/DC craft beer and wine scenes, and spending time with friends.