U.S. greenhouse gas emissions rose by 6.2% in 2021 The spike was attributed to a slew of causes, including behavior changes after COVID-19 vaccines became widely available, but environmental advocates say it's worrisome.

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions jumped in 2021, a threat to climate goals

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions increased last year. And that's a problem because to address climate change, the country's emissions need to go down each year instead. NPR's Jeff Brady reports, there's also new information showing the last seven years where the Earth's hottest on record.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The global temperature last year reached 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, according to the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service. That's getting close to the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. The U.S. contributed to more warming as Americans got vaccines and the economy recovered.

KATE LARSEN: What was dismaying for us was to see that emissions bounced back even faster than the overall economy.

BRADY: Kate Larsen with the research firm Rhodium Group says to meet Paris goals, the U.S. needs to reduce climate warming emissions about 5% a year. Last year, they went up more than 6%. Part of that is because 2020 levels were down a lot as people stayed home at the beginning of the pandemic. Then in 2021, Larsen says the U.S. used more electricity.

LARSEN: Coal generation in the electric power system bounced back really rapidly - a 17% increase from 2020. That's the first time we've seen a rise in coal-fired generation in the U.S. in the last seven years.

BRADY: Coal emits more carbon dioxide per megawatt of electricity than natural gas, but it was cheaper last year as gas prices rose. So utilities chose to fire up coal generators to meet demand. Larsen says transportation emissions also were up mostly because a lot more freight was shipped around the country - also because people are traveling more than in 2020. Tiernan Sittenfeld with the League of Conservation Voters says the country needs policies to push emissions back down again.

TIERNAN SITTENFELD: We must meet the climate test that the president has committed to, that science and environmental and racial justice require of cutting climate pollution in half by 2030.

BRADY: That's only eight years from now. And the country isn't even halfway to meeting the goal. That's why Sittenfeld and other environmental groups want Congress to pass a large budget bill dubbed the Build Back Better act. It includes more than a half trillion dollars in spending for things like renewable energy and turbo charging the adoption of electric vehicles. But currently, that legislation is stalled in Congress.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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