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The complexity of carbon emissions and economic growth

For the majority of the last decade, the United States has managed to reduce harmful carbon emissions during a time of limited economic growth. Chemist John Deutch warns that the country’s reduction of emissions will be short-lived. Deutch, who has worked with energy departments under several presidents, has released a report that explains the country has experienced a one-time event that will not continue long enough to prevent climate change.

“My article says that the reason that happened is two-fold: first, the economic growth was really quite modest during that period; and second, there was an unusual shift in the carbon intensity–carbon per unit of energy used by the US economy–because of the unusual shift during that period from coal electricity generation and natural-gas electricity generation,” says Deutch. “So there was a shift in carbon intensity that was responsible for the favorable experience the country had, but it relied on that one-time shift and on the fact the energy growth was more limited.”

This causes concern that the United States will struggle to consistently lower carbon emissions during a normal period of economic growth. In his report, Deutch refers to the Kaya Identity, which is a mathematical model that relates human economic activity to carbon dioxide emissions. This model predicts that an annual economic growth of 2 percent in the United States would produce carbon emissions above and beyond the 2050 goal.

For countries like China, meeting the emission goals they have pledged would also mean sacrificing economic growth.

“If you properly consider the relationship between economic growth and carbon emission with respect to the Kaya Identity, you have a much different view of what the likely projections are over the next 25 years, and in fact, the Department of Energy and the US Energy Information Administration does not project a significant decline in carbon emissions in the United States or worldwide,” says Deutch. “I very much support the Obama administration efforts on energy and climate, but I think it’s important to understand the basis of projections, convictions, and beliefs based on analysis rather than just fragmenting information from one period.”

The report, which is published in the journal Joule, states that current carbon reductions will not be enough to prevent the impact of climate change. Deutch says technology is urgently needed to produce energy that is capable of efficiently supporting the country’s growing economic activity. He also recommends investment in new solutions to help the world safely adapt to Earth’s changing atmosphere.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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