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EPA analysis found pandemic spurred sharp dip in emissions

The data shows a steep and almost assuredly temporary drop in the amount of planet-warming greenhouse gases the U.S. spewed into the atmosphere in 2020.
Air pollution
Smoke bellows from a truck's muffler in N.Y.BSIP / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The tally is complete. 

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell by about 10.6 percent in 2020, according to a final accounting of the contribution to warming in the first year of the pandemic, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday.  

The data, which was skewed by the pandemic’s social and economic disruptions, shows a steep and almost assuredly temporary drop in the amount of planet-warming greenhouse gases the U.S. spewed into the atmosphere.

The EPA takes about 15 months to compile the data from required industrial reporting. It is submitted annually to the United Nations.

Expect a rise in emissions for 2021. Preliminary analysis of last year's emissions by the Rhodium Group suggests it bounced back by roughly 6.2 percent, though that early figure could shift. 

The EPA’s inventory serves as a yearly reminder of U.S. progress — or lack thereof — toward its climate goals. That 2020 emissions only fell by a little more than a tenth in a year, when most of the nation’s citizens remained on lockdown for weeks and avoided travel, shows how deeply intertwined fossil fuels remain within the economy. Transportation emissions, among the most sensitive to the pandemic’s impacts, fell by about 13 percent in 2020. 

The U.S. remains on a trajectory to miss its climate goals, the inventory suggests. President Joe Biden, joined by world leaders at the United Nation’s COP26 climate meetings in Glasgow in November, pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. 

The 2020 EPA inventory shows that net emissions were down 21.4 percent from 2005 levels. U.S. emissions peaked in 2007 and have trended slightly downward since.  

The Biden administration’s infrastructure bill is expected to make a small dent in emissions, but meeting the president’s climate ambitions likely relies on passage of his Build Back Better bill, which remains stalled in the Senate as the president struggles to garner the support of some members of his own party, notably Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona

Nearly three-quarters of 2020 emissions were from carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere during the combustion of fossil fuels. Methane emissions, which represented nearly 11 percent of all emissions, rose in 2020, the inventory said. 

Reducing methane emissions is among the easiest ways to immediately slow climate change

Methane absorbs more energy than carbon dioxide, making it a more potent greenhouse gas. But methane — the primary component in natural gas — also breaks down much faster in the atmosphere, meaning its effects are shorter lived. 

Measures like capturing more landfill methane and reducing leaks in natural gas infrastructure could make a substantial impact.