A data-driven look at state climate leadership and the cold, hard realities of climate math

Updated: Sep 23, 2019

This article was first published at TheHill.com (link). In this post, I have expanded the original article with additional charts and information.

Increased emissions in Texas are canceling out climate progress across the country

Texas air pollution and climate change
Photo Credit: Dallas Observer

For those who understand the scale of the climate emergency, President Trump's climate denial and scorched-earth rollbacks of climate programs have been appalling.

Fortunately, for every ounce of despair, there is a pound of optimism to be had in the enormous momentum we are now seeing: surging grassroots demand for climate action, transformative leaps in clean energy jobs and technologies, and new leadership from states and municipalities.

There is a great danger, however, in confusing momentum and optimism with the cold, hard realities of climate math. We cannot afford to overstate the progress that is being made compared to the scale and speed with which change is needed.

With that in mind, I have analyzed emissions data from the Energy Information Administration to examine whether states have successfully picked up the slack on climate action as the federal government slips backward. 

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence supporting the notion. Twenty-five governors participating in the U.S. Climate Alliance have embraced the Paris climate agreement.  New York has recently enacted a bill setting a net-zero emissions target for the state. Washington state recently joined California, Maine and Hawaii in setting deadlines for 100 percent carbon-free electricity.

Interestingly, the data show that the biggest progress cutting emissions has come not from these “climate leadership states,” but rather from states in the Midwest and Southeast. These states, which often had particularly high concentrations of coal-fired pollution, have benefitted most from the shift to cleaner sources of electric power.

As a region, the Midwest has led the way in cutting carbon emissions since the recovery from the Great Recession began, slashing pollution from coal, oil and gas nine percent between 2009 and 2016 (the latest year data are available).

The Midwest’s leadership underscores the vast opportunity to create quality jobs in a booming clean energy economy while combatting climate change. Midwest states added 3 million jobs while making these emission reductions. The region’s GDP increased 28 percent.

In the Southeast, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina all cut emissions more than ten percent.

Climate leadership states are also making good progress. Nineteen states in the U.S. Climate Alliance are at least halfway to the Paris emission reduction goals for the year 2025.

Also, the Northeast and West regions have cut annual carbon emissions by 96 million tons collectively.  That’s equivalent to zeroing out the emissions from 20 million cars and trucks.

Now for the bad news.

Despite leadership from so many states, the overall U.S. emissions picture is bleak if we don’t do more. As we squeeze the emissions balloon downward in some states and economic sectors, emissions are simultaneously expanding upward in others. The net effect: nationwide carbon emissions rose rapidly in 2018 — the biggest increase in eight years.

Texas is the leading culprit. The emissions increase from Texas alone has erased reductions from all states in the West and Northeast, combined.

Texas’ carbon emissions surged 20 percent higher from 2009 through 2016, an increase of 108 million tons.

How is this possible? For starters, Texas has an oversized carbon footprint, almost double the emissions of more populous California.

It’s sadly ironic that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has falsely attacked the Paris climate agreement for giving “Russia and China and India a free pass.” The truth is that Texas has been given the free pass, and they are abusing it.

Despite leading the nation in wind energy, Texas’ industrial emissions are surging alongside oil and gas production. All that oil has to go somewhere, and Texas has been using it to fuel a massive buildout of plastics production, oil refining and natural gas liquification.

Between 2009 and 2016, oil emissions from Texas’ industrial sector have more than doubled, and natural gas emissions have climbed by one-third. These emission bombs have shattered the state’s modest (4 percent) emissions reduction in the electric power sector.

It doesn’t have to be this way. North Dakota outpaced all other states in cutting its carbon intensity despite a five-fold increase in oil and natural gas production between 2009 and 2016.

In fact, Texas has one of the most profitable opportunities to cut greenhouse gas emissions: plugging leaks of methane, a climate super-pollutant, in the oil and gas sector. Rather than plucking this low-hanging fruit, Texas filed a lawsuit to block new federal methane standards, just one of many lawsuits championed by the Lone Star State against federal climate action. 

This is not a cause for despair. It is a call to action on three fronts:

First, climate leadership states need to up their game and put effective, comprehensive action plans in place to meet climate goals and cut emissions from all major emissions sectors: electricity, transportation and industry.

Second, more states need to become climate leadership states. We won’t get to where we need to go with only half the nation trying.

Third, America needs a federal climate plan. The plan should help all states and cities by incentivizing deeper, faster emission cuts. Also, the federal climate plan must create a minimum floor of action so that a few states don’t undermine the progress made by the rest of us. No state can be left behind in the push to a thriving U.S. clean energy economy.

Federal leadership won’t happen without big changes at the ballot box in 2020. It also won’t happen if leaders throughout the climate movement don’t overcome their deep (and justified) skepticism of the Beltway and invest in the hard work to deliver the national climate leadership that America needs.

Jeremy Symons is a consultant at Symons Public Affairs and writer on climate change, energy policy, and politics. He previously worked as vice president for political affairs at Environmental Defense Fund and as deputy staff director on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee.

BONUS DATA: A State-by-State Look at Emissions Changes from 2009-2016

The graph below shows the total change in annual, energy-related carbon emissions for each state between 2009 and 2016 (the latest year that data is available from the U.S. Energy Information Administration).

WE HAVE A LONG WAY TO GO: Cutting U.S. emissions in half over the next decade will require a winning mixture of one-part optimism, two-parts resolve, and three-parts action. Sadly, U.S. carbon emissions rose again in 2018 – the biggest increase in eight years. To lead on climate change, America must rapidly cut U.S. emissions until they are in balance with nature’s capacity to fully absorb them, achieving net-zero emissions. Currently, United States greenhouse gas emissions are equivalent to more than six BILLION tons of greenhouse gases every year, which is nine times greater than the capacity of America’s forests, soils, and lands to absorb.


  • For each state, the chart shows the change in annual CO2 emissions for each economic sector (electricity, industry, buildings, and transportation) independently. Each is shown in a different color. Most reductions are from the electricity sector (Blue), while transportation (orange) and industry (red) tended to push emissions upward.a

  • Sectors that had a net reduction in emissions between 2009-2016 will show up under the "zero" line as negative emissions. Sectors that had a net increase in emissions between 2009-2016 will show up above the "zero" line as positive emissions.

  • The gray line (and the corresponding data label) represents the net increase or decrease in a state's emissions, adding up all four sectors. Ohio, for example, had the greatest net decrease in emissions between 2009 and 2016: 29 million tons of CO2 annually. (Unfortunately, Ohio recently passed a coal bailout package that David Roberts calls "the worst energy plan of the 21st century").

  • The 24 states that have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, pledging to meet the Paris targets and reduce their state's emissions at least 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, are indicated with double asterisks (**) by their name.


  • Unlike most US emissions analyses, which use 2005 as the reference point, I used 2009 as the first year because that was the beginning of the post-recession economic expansion. I set out to understand how states were doing on emissions as they expanded their economies and added jobs.

  • Also, this chart looks at absolute tons, rather than percentage changes. Any given state might want to measure up against the Paris climate targets and their neighbors based on percentage reductions. But the point of this exercise was to figure out which states were most influencing overall U.S. emissions, and that comes down to absolute tons. Emissions increases and decreases in states with large carbon footprints tend to matter more than those with smaller footprints.

  • Electricity is used largely in residential, commercial and industrial buildings, but this chart only accounts for direct energy usage (coal, oil, and gas) in each sector. This has the unintended effect of disguising the critical importance of electricity demand reduction in buildings and industry. If electricity demand had increased over this time alongside GDP growth from 2009 through 2016, then the emissions cuts from fuel switching in the electricity sector would have likely have been erased.

  • The above charts only encompass carbon emissions from energy (oil, gas, and coal). No comparable year-over-year data was available on carbon sinks/sequestration from land use nor other greenhouse gases such as methane.

BONUS DATA: A Regional Look at Emissions Changes from 2009-2016

All regions of the nation except the Southwest collectively made reductions in annual carbon emissions from energy between 2009 and 2016 as their economies grew and added jobs following the great recession. Even in the Southwest, states beyond Texas collectively reduced their emissions.


  • The blue bar represents the total increase or decrease in annual carbon emissions from energy in each region of the nation between 2009 and 2016.

  • The red line indicates the percentage change in annual carbon emissions within each region over the same time frame. On a percentage basis, the Midwest narrowly edged out the northeast as the lead region in reducing emissions. On a tonnage basis, the Midwest leadership is more pronounced, as Midwest states collectively have a larger carbon footprint than the Northeast.

BONUS DATA: A Look at Emissions Changes from 2009-2016 Across States Grouped According to Political Party Control

Setting aside Texas, red and purple states have outpaced blue states in cutting carbon emissions because that is where the biggest sources of emissions are located. The important takeaway conclusion here is that purple and red states are an essential part of the progress to date and future opportunity to cut emissions, even though the most visible climate leadership policies are coming largely from blue states such as California and New York.

SAY WHAT? This chart will likely surprise a lot of people. It examines the change in emissions between 2009 and 2016 with states grouped according to the political party controlling state government today. Blue states collectively reduced their annual carbon emissions from energy by 64 million tons between 2009 and 2016. Purple states reduced their emissions by 105 million tons, and red states (except Texas), led the field with a 144 million ton reduction. Importantly, Texas is omitted from the Red States here because its impact is so enormous that it hides some interesting trends for the rest of the 49 states.

COINCIDENCE, NOT CAUSALITY: There is nothing in this data that is designed to prove or disprove causality. In fact, some of these states shifted between purple, red and blue states during this time frame. The causal relationship is most likely tied to the higher dependency of red and purple states on coal in 2009, and the proportionally higher benefits as utilities have shifted to gas and renewables (while huge leaps in energy efficiency have also played a key roll in keeping overall demand steady).


  • Red states are defined as any state where the GOP controls the Governorship and both branches of the legislature. Blue states are under full Democrat control. Purple states are defined here as having split party control among the governorship and the two legislative branches.

  • The blue bar represents the total increase or decrease in annual carbon emissions from energy in each grouping of states 2009 and 2016.

  • The red line indicates the percentage change in annual carbon emissions within each grouping over the same time frame. Purple states, for example, had a higher percentage reduction in emissions than red states (minus Texas), but red states have a larger overall reduction on a tonnage basis because they have a larger carbon footprint.

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