Study: When Human Consumption Slows, Planet Earth Can Heal

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Study: When Human Consumption Slows, Planet Earth Can Heal

New research debunks myth of climate-friendly fracking revolution

A banner at the 2014 People's Climate March in New York City, during which protesters connected the greed of endless growth with the growing climate crisis. (Photo: UM Women/cc/flickr)

A banner at the 2014 People's Climate March in New York City, during which protesters connected the greed of endless growth with the growing climate crisis. (Photo: UM Women/cc/flickr)

Despite the oft-repeated claim that the recent decline in U.S. carbon emissions was due to the so-called 'fracking boom,' new research published Tuesday shows that it was the dramatic fall in consumption during the Great Recession that deserves credit for this drop.

As nations grapple with the best strategy for decreasing carbon emissions ahead of the upcoming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations in Paris, the report, published in the journal Nature Communications, underscores the need for communities to transition away from an economy based on endless growth and towards a more renewable energy system to stem the growing climate crisis.

Between 2007 and 2013, the United States—second only to China for the title of world's top polluter—saw carbon emissions fall roughly 11 percent.

As the researchers with the University of Maryland and the University of California at Irvine note, "This decline has been widely attributed to a shift from the use of coal to natural gas in U.S. electricity production. However, the factors driving the decline have not been quantitatively evaluated."

The study analyzed six possible sources for the change in fossil fuel emissions: population growth, consumption volume, the types of goods consumed, the labor and materials used to produce goods and services, the type of fuel used, and how much energy is used. 

What the researchers found was that 71 percent of the rise in carbon emissions from 1997 to 2007 was due to "economic growth." Alternately, "83 percent of the decrease during 2007-2009 was due to decreased consumption and changes in the production structure of the U.S. economy," with just 17 percent related to changes in the type of fuels used.

Further, during the period of economic recovery from 2009 to 2013, there was a much smaller decrease in emissions of only about one percent. "We conclude that substitution of gas for coal has had a relatively minor role in the... reduction of U.S. CO2 emissions since 2007," the researchers state.

"Commentators in the scientific community and media have linked the two trends, celebrating the climate benefits of the gas boom," the paper notes, which in turn has driven recent changes in U.S. energy policy and investment.

However, in reality, the change was due to economic decline, study co-author Klaus Hubacek of University of Maryland told AFP.  "We show clearly that changes in consumption levels, and thus the recession, are mainly responsible," he said.

The study's findings echo other recent arguments linking the rise of overall consumption and the growth economy with the decline in the Earth's ecosystems.

"Climate change," wrote Canadian activist and author Naomi Klein in her recent book, This Changes Everything, "pits what the planet needs to maintain stability against what our economic model needs to sustain itself."

The researchers hope the study will help influence public policy and help assess the "efficacy of different forces to reduce U.S. emissions in the future."

The paper cites a number of reasons why further increases in the use of natural gas will not help alleviate current warming conditions, including: stymied investment in emission-free technologies such as solar and wind, increased emissions attributed to methane leaked from new natural gas infrastructure, increased overseas emissions due to the export of U.S. coal, and lastly, decreased gas prices driving consumers to spend money on other "carbon- and energy-intensive goods."

"For all these reasons," the paper states, "further increases in the use of natural gas in the United States may not have a large effect on global greenhouse gas emissions and warming."

The research concludes, "Sustaining economic growth while also drastically reducing emissions to the levels targeted by the Obama administration will depend upon large additional decreases in the energy intensity of the U.S. economy as well as radical decarbonization of the energy sector," meaning "very large changes in the fuel mix of the energy sector away from fossil fuels and toward renewables."

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