Science and TechPollution


US greenhouse pollution climbed in 2021, thanks to fossil fuel use

EPA research shows that as the U.S. recovers from the pandemic's effects, it's been burning more fossil fuels.
A coal-fired power plant in Missouri
Posted at 10:19 PM, Apr 14, 2023

The latest EPA inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and sinks shows the U.S. modestly increased its emissions in 2021, as the economy recovered from its pandemic slump in 2020.

The 881-page report shows net emissions increased 6%, mostly due to carbon dioxide that came from the burning of fossil fuels.

Greenhouse emissions include carbon dioxide, methane, fluorinated gases, nitrous oxide and other gases, but a single top-line number combines their effects into a single equivalent amount of CO2. In 2021, emissions as a whole were equivalent to 5.58 billion metric tons of CO2.

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These emissions remained 17% below their 2005 peak, thanks largely to long-term greening in the energy sector. As the U.S. uses more natural gas and renewable energy sources instead of coal, energy pollution overall comes down.

Now transportation makes up the single heaviest emissions sector, accounting for 29% of the total in 2021.

This sector increased its pollution by 11% annually, bouncing nearly all the way back from the 13% drop that occurred when travel demand plummeted during the pandemic. Light-duty vehicles — the cars and trucks on America's roads — make up more than half of annual transportation emissions.

The report also measures the amount of CO2 removed from the atmosphere every year. In 2021, changes in land use, such as forest management and increased urban tree planting, removed a net 12% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which would have otherwise added to the annual pollution numbers.