I’m not sure why this surprises me, but it does: in the Northwest states, transportation—our cars and trucks, plus planes, boats, and trains—accounts for the majority of the region’s CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.
When you break the numbers down a bit more, gasoline alone accounts for almost a third of all energy-related CO2 emissions.
For the country overall, transportation represents only about one third of total emissions from fossil fuels. But that’s mostly an accident of geography: the Northwest’s hydropower is relatively climate-friendly, which keeps emissions from homes, businesses and industry relatively low; whereas coal—which supplies most of the nation’s electricity—is a first-order climate offender. Nationwide, electricity generation accounts for nearly 40 percent of total climate-warming emissions from fossil fuels.
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One thing that the numbers suggest is that, if you want to take a bite out of global warming in the Pacific Northwest, the best place to start is with gasoline, which is by far the largest single source of emissions in our energy portfolio.
But beware—in some ways the chart is misleading. Based on the chart alone, it’s easy to conclude that our emissions from electricity aren’t a big deal. But that’s a mistake.
Sure, on average, the Northwest’s electricity consumption is pretty benign. But on the margins—ie., what gets added or subtracted when consumption trends up or down—our electricity is every bit as dirty as the rest of the country’s. We’re already importing a lot of power from coal plants outside the region, especially during the winter months when demand peaks. If demand here increases, we’ll have to import more coal-fired power. If demand slackens, we’ll be able to export more hydropower—likely offsetting coal and gas-fired electricity elsewhere.
So even though transportation represents the bulk of our energy-related emissions, using electricity more efficiently—and generating it renewably—is still one of the best things we can do to reduce our impact on the climate.