Pollution Worsened in 2018 Because of Two Overlooked Sectors, Research Suggests

Robyn Beck/Associated Press

In the debate over climate change, the heaviest polluters — think: power plants, trucks and cars — get the most attention from policymakers. New research suggests a broader view might be called for.

A pair of often-overlooked sectors posted the largest rises in carbon dioxide pollution in the United States in 2018. Emissions generated by industrial manufacturing jumped 5.7%, according to research firm Rhodium Group. Commercial and residential buildings generated 10% more emissions.

Those increases drove the 3.4% rise in overall pollution, the second-biggest year-over-year increase in the past 20 years. Transportation, which remains the U.S. economy’s largest source of carbon-dioxide, rose about 1%.

The increase in pollution from buildings highlights a particular problem for policymakers. It is strongly related to the weather — a warmer winter in 2017 suppressed demand for heating fuel and makes the return to normal in 2018 look like a spike. And while regulators can raise efficiency standards and change building codes for new construction, there’s not much they can do to control energy use in existing homes and offices.

Manufacturing production increased last year, buoyed by a generally robust economy. But great news for factories can be a headache for carbon-cutters. “The industrial sector is still almost entirely ignored” by climate policymakers, the Rhodium authors write.


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These “forgotten sectors,” as the Rhodium authors call them in their report, together make up about a third of U.S. carbon dioxide, with industrial sources contributing 22% and buildings 11% in 2016, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The marked jump in overall U.S. energy emissions threatens to puncture the rhetoric of both the Trump administration and the oil industry, which have celebrated dropping emissions as a sign that technological innovation and market developments can protect the environment even without strict federal regulations.

Emissions reductions — alongside record energy development — were touted at an American Petroleum Institute event in Washington on Jan. 8.

Mike Sommers, the trade group’s president, called it a “remarkable dual achievement: producing record U.S. natural gas and oil while driving U.S. emissions to their lowest levels in a generation.’’

Pressed to reconcile his statements and the Rhodium Group data, Sommers said it’s “important that we recognize the broader trend.” The Rhodium report relies in part on a U.S. Energy Information Administration report that “projects that CO2 emissions will continue to trend downward in 2019, even as our industry continues to meet record consumer demand and deliver for American families,’’ he said.

A rise in U.S. emissions in 2018 previously was forecast by EIA in December.