How the Recession Accidentally Helped the Planet

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From the White House to the ivory tower, climate change experts have cited a 10% decline in carbon emissions in the United States as a sign that the country is on the right track to reducing emissions. Increased reliance on natural gas has been cited as the cause of the improvement.

But new research suggests carbon emissions declined largely as a result of a drop in economic activity during the Great Recession. Overall, the economic downturn led to more than 80% of the total reduction in carbon emissions between 2007 and 2009, according to a new study in the journal Nature Communications.

The finding casts doubt on the ability of policymakers to encourage reduced emissions while also growing the economy, says study author Dr. Klaus Hubacek, an ecological economist at the University of Maryland. Whether it’s possible to do both at the same time has been central to the debate over climate-change policy.

“The higher the income, the higher the carbon emissions per capita,” Hubacek says. “One has to think about what increase in income can we afford in a world that has a finite capacity to absorb carbon.”

Read more: Here’s Where to Buy a House In the U.S. That Will Be Resilient to Climate Change

Economic growth fueled 71% of the increase in carbon emissions between 1997 and 2007, according to the study. Researchers attribute the remainder of the emissions spike during that period to population growth. Between 2007 and 2009, 83% of the decrease in carbon emission can be attributed to economic decline. The remaining 17% was the result of changing energy sources, the study found.

Between 2009 and 2013, during the economic recovery, the decrease in carbon emissions amounted to less than 1%, a decline that can be attributed to a variety of origins.

The research casts a new light on the Obama administration’s ambitious goal of dramatically reducing carbon emissions in the coming decades. Officials frequently cite the emissions reduction of the last decade as the first step in long-lasting improvement. The White House has said the U.S. will decrease carbon emissions by 17% by 2020 and 83% by 2050 compared to 2005 levels.

In response to an inquiry about the study, the White House attributed the decline in green house emissions to “first-term policies that increased renewable energy and vehicle fuel economy, as well as energy market factors.”

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