U.S. transportation emissions climbed back to two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels during 2021 — and that modest reduction was almost entirely attributable to decreases in air travel rather than decreases in gasoline consumption, a new study finds.
According to preliminary estimates from the Rhodium Group, transport sector emissions shot up 10 percent between the 2020 and 2021, making it once again the country’s single largest driver of climate change, despite the fact that travel continued to be suppressed by the pandemic for much of the year. That puts the sector at roughly two-thirds of pre-quarantine levels, even as emissions levels in other areas of the economy rose far more gradually (see chart below).
The authors of the report note that America has now erased most of the progress it made in 2020 towards achieving the critical targets set out under the Paris Agreement, and leaders will now have to act urgently to recapture those gains.
During 2020, U.S. emissions had fallen to 22.2 percent of 2005 levels, taking a promising step towards the national goal of achieving 50 percent of those levels by 2030. But because of the return of so much economic activity in 2021 total emissions are now only 17.4 percent below 2005 levels.
“Joint accelerated action by Congress, the federal executive branch, and leading states can put the 2030 target within reach,” the report authors wrote. “But all must act quickly in order to put the U.S. on track.”
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