The USA used fewer fossil fuels in 2020 than it has in three decades

    21 Jul 2021

    Americans gobbled up fewer fossil fuels in 2020 than they have in three decades, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). Consumption of petroleum, natural gas, and coal dropped by 9 percent last year compared to 2019, the most significant annual decrease since the EIA started keeping track in 1949.

    The COVID-19 pandemic was responsible for much of the fall as people stayed home to curb the spread of the virus and used less gas. In April 2020, oil prices nosedived below zero because there was so little demand. The US transportation sector alone used up 15 percent less energy in 2020 compared to the year before. Higher temperatures last winter also helped to cut energy demand for heating, according to the EIA. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels plummeted to a near 40-year low.

    In 2020, total consumption of fossil fuels in the United States, including petroleum, natural gas, and coal, fell to 72.9 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu), down 9% from 2019 and the lowest level since 1991, according to EIA Monthly Energy Review. EIA’s new chart of U.S. fossil fuel consumption by source and sector shows how each sector consumes fossil fuels. The chart also indicates fossil fuels used for industrial non-combustion or nonfuel purposes, for example, in making plastics and chemicals.

    Last year marked the most significant annual decrease in U.S. fossil fuel consumption in both absolute and percentage terms since at least 1949, the earliest year in the annual data series. Economic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, including a 15% decrease in energy consumption in the U.S. transportation sector, drove much of the decline. The United States also had relatively warmer weather in 2020, which reduced the demand for heating fuels.

    That downward trend will have to continue to stave off the climate crisis. Upon rejoining the Paris climate agreement, President Joe Biden committed the US to slash its planet-heating pollution in half this decade from near-peak levels it reached in 2005. That’s part of a global effort to keep global warming from surpassing a point that life on Earth would struggle to adapt to, a global average temperature that’s roughly 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

    To hit that goal, there should be no further investments in new fossil fuel projects, according to a recent landmark report from the International Energy Agency. The oil and gas industries are already feeling the crunch from lawsuits and activist investors forcing them to move faster toward more sustainable forms of energy.

    Renewable energy — particularly solar and wind — is on the upswing, The Verge states. Despite the pandemic, renewable sources of electricity grew faster last year than they have since 1999. After making up an impressive 90 percent of the global power sector’s growth, the International Energy Agency expects renewable energy to maintain the same “exceptionally high” growth through 2022.

    Despite the momentum moving in green energy’s favor, cutting pollution from fossil fuels at a fast enough pace to avoid climate catastrophe is still an uphill battle. As economies opened back up after their pandemic lull, CO2 emissions came roaring back.“The rebound in global carbon emissions toward the end of last year is a stark warning that not enough is being done to accelerate clean energy transitions worldwide. If governments don’t move quickly with the right energy policies, this could put at risk the world’s historic opportunity to make 2019 the absolute peak in global emissions,” said in March 2021 Dr. Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director.

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