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EPA Boasts Of Reduced Greenhouse Gases, Even As Trump Questions Climate Science

In this June 3, 2017, file photo, the coal-fired Plant Scherer stands in the distance in Juliette, Ga.
Branden Camp
In this June 3, 2017, file photo, the coal-fired Plant Scherer stands in the distance in Juliette, Ga.

The Trump administration is celebrating a drop in the nation's greenhouse gas emissions last year, even as the president himself continues to challenge the scientific understanding of climate change.

The Environmental Protection Agency says U.S. production of heat-trapping gases was 2.7 percent lower in 2017 than the previous year. Despite the improvement, independent analysts say the country is likely to fall far short of the pollution controls needed to rein in global warming.

"The trends that are driving the emission reductions that we saw in 2017 were baked in several years before," said Kate Larsen, who monitors greenhouse gas emissions for the Rhodium Group, an independent research firm. "We can't rely on those trends continuing forever."

Much of the reduction in 2017 came from power plants — traditionally a leading source of carbon pollution. Emissions from the electricity sector fell by 4.5 percent as utilities switched to cheap natural gas and increasingly competitive renewable sources of power. Coal's share of electricity production fell to just 30 percent.

"These achievements flow largely from technological breakthroughs in the private sector, not the heavy hand of government," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist and, like President Trump, a skeptic when it comes to climate science.

In an interview with 60 Minutes that aired this week, Trump disputed the overwhelming scientific consensus that man-made carbon pollution is responsible for global warming.

"You'd have to show me the scientists because they have a very big political agenda," the president said.

Trump has made a priority of rolling back Obama-era climate policies, including measures designed to cut pollution from power plants and automotive tailpipes.

The electricity sector has continued to show progress in reducing emissions despite that about-face by the federal government. The abundance of cheap natural gas and falling prices for renewable power have encouraged the switch from dirtier, coal-fired plants. Some states have also required utilities to boost their reliance on greener sources of power.

The trends are less positive in the transportation sector, which has now eclipsed electricity as the leading producer of greenhouse gases.

"People are driving more and because of low gas prices over the last few years, consumers are choosing larger, heavier vehicles," Larsen said. The Trump administration has also put the brakes on an Obama-era effort to boost fuel economy, although states like California have threatened to impose their own standards.

Larsen says at the current pace, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2025 will be about 15 percent below their 2005 levels. That's far short of the 26 to 28 percent reduction promised under the Paris climate agreement.

Trump announced his intention to withdraw from that agreement last year.

If cheap natural gas continues to grab market share, greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector could start to climb again after 2025. At that point, gas might not be displacing carbon-intensive coal but rather carbon-free nuclear power.

"This is the risk of taking credit for these market trends," Larsen said. "When those trends push in a direction that's not useful, no one is taking the blame for that."

In an interview with the Associated Press this week, Trump argued that government efforts to further curb carbon pollution could put the U.S. at an economic disadvantage.

"What I'm not willing to do is sacrifice the economic well-being of our country for something that nobody really knows," Trump said, repeating his false claim that there's widespread debate on climate science. "I have a natural instinct for science," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.