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Record Warmth Helps Shrink U.S. Carbon Emissions

As the first half of 2016 blew away temperature records, it also blew away some carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels in the U.S., a new U.S. Department of Energy report shows.

Energy related carbon dioxide emissions hit their lowest point since 1991 during the first six months of 2016 because of mild weather, declining coal use and increased use of wind, solar and hydropower. By the end of the year, 2016 is expected to see the lowest level of energy related carbon emissions of any full year since 1992, according to the report, released Wednesday.

Carbon emissions from generating electricity, mostly at coal-fired power plants, are the largest single contributor of greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.

U.S. climate policies, such as the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, are encouraging utilities to shift away from coal as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Countries that signed the Paris Climate Agreement are trying to limit emissions to prevent global warming from exceeding 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels.

Every month during the first half of 2016 was record warm globally, leading to a mild winter in the U.S. and less demand for energy.

“Warmer temperatures meant that less energy was needed for space heating,” said Allen McFarland, an analyst at the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In the first half of this year, energy related carbon dioxide emissions fell 5 percent compared to the first half of 2015 while overall energy use fell 2 percent during that time, McFarland said.

The rise of renewables, including solar and wind power, are contributing to a decline in energy-related carbon dioxide emissions across the U.S. Credit: Centre for Alternative Technology/flickr

During the mild winter, U.S. residential natural gas use fell 13 percent compared to the same period in 2015.

At the same time, generating electricity is becoming less energy intense as utilities shift toward natural gas from coal, helping to reduce emissions overall. Burning natural gas involves about half the carbon dioxide emissions as burning coal.

During the first half of 2016, the use of coal to generate electricity fell 19 percent while use of natural gas climbed 8 percent.

The continued rise of renewable energy also helped bring down carbon emissions this year.

Use of renewables to generate electricity -- mostly hydropower, wind and solar -- increased 15 percent in the first six months of 2016 compared to the same period last year, McFarland said.

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