U.S. greenhouse gas emissions increased 6.2% in 2021 compared to 2020, signifying that the country may be far from hitting President Biden's stated climate goals for 2030.
The estimate, released Jan. 10 by the Rhodium Group, includes a 17% increase in the use of coal-fired electric power.
"The reasons are multiple," said Nives Dolsak, the University of Washington's School of Marine and Environmental Affairs director. "The most important reason is that the substitute for coal, natural gas, became much more expensive in 2021."
Federal data indicates the average price of natural gas doubled from 2020 to 2021.
"When the cost doubles, you adjust," Dolsak said. "That's what we've seen in 2021."
The Rhodium Group report pointed to electric power and the transportation sector as the two main contributors to the increased emissions.
Car and airplane emissions were higher in 2021 compared to 2020 but lower compared to 2019.
"2020 was such an odd year," she said. "For example, the travel emissions in the U.S. reduced by about 15% [from 2019 to 2020] as a result of COVID. We need to be looking at the longer trends."
Dolsak said the economy-wide changes made during the pandemic could play a role in reducing emissions over the long term.
"During the pandemic year, flights were grounded, people were more stationary, we were not commuting to work," Dolsak said. "We have seen companies saying some of those jobs will never return to the office permanently. I suspect some of those gains were permanent. We have learned how to be more productive online versus commuting to the office."
The issue is a prominent one for the Biden administration.
In April 2021, President Biden pledged that the U.S. cut carbon emissions by 50-52% of 2005 levels by 2030.
The goal helped shape his signature infrastructure package and the Build Back Better legislation, which stalled in the U.S. Senate.
At the current pace, the U.S. will only cut emissions by 17-25%, according to a 2021 report.
"If you look at the data, Americans believe in global climate change and want to see more action," Dolsak said. "They want to see the federal government take action. They want to see firms take action."
"The good news is that the massive intervention that you and I are talking about is already being discussed," Dolsak continued. "We already have policy instruments devised. We simply have to put them in place."