Idaho’s greenhouse gas emissions grew by 31 percent from 1990 to 2005, nearly twice as fast as the national average, according to the Gem State’s first comprehensive look at its contribution to global warming.
Rapid population growth, a thriving economy and Idahoans’ high per-capita consumption of electricity and gasoline led to the sharp increase.
Without reductions, Idaho’s emissions could rise by 60 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.
The recent 150-page report was prepared by the Center for Climate Strategies in Harrisburg, Pa., which helps public and private entities reduce their carbon footprints.
The report provides initial estimates of Idaho’s greenhouse gas emissions and how they’re generated, said Chris Ramsdell, emissions inventory coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Quality.
The numbers will be refined next year, when the state produces its first detailed account of carbon dioxide and other pollutants linked to global warming.
“We’ll inventory everything,” Ramsdell said. “The emissions from the water heater in your basement; what’s coming out of the tailpipe on your private vehicle; and the asphalt paving project down the street.”
Overall, Idaho is a low emitter, according to the recent Center for Climate Strategies report. The state ranks 47th for greenhouse gas emissions, contributing less than 1 percent of the United States’ annual release into the atmosphere.
But as the nation’s fourth-fastest growing state, Idaho’s emissions are increasing rapidly. Its 1.5 million residents also drive more miles and use more electricity than average U.S. residents.
“I was actually quite surprised to see Idaho’s rates rising faster than the nation’s as a whole,” said Sara Cohn, who works on climate change issues for the Idaho Conservation League.
But the report is hopeful in that “we already know many of the solutions,” Cohn said.
Promoting public transportation and energy-efficient buildings would significantly reduce Idaho’s carbon footprint, she said.
The tailpipe – no surprise – emerged as Idaho’s single largest source of emissions. In 2005, 27 percent of the state’s emissions came from transportation, including private vehicles and the trucking industry.
The agricultural industry was next, accounting for 25 percent of emissions.
“Agriculture is a big industry, and our population is relatively small,” Ramsdell said. “If we had 10 million people, agriculture would be hidden.”
Most of agriculture’s contributions come from methane gas produced by cows, whose digestive systems allow them to survive on tough grasses and other vegetation.
“They have a four-chamber stomach, chew their cud and burp a lot,” Ramsdell said.
Other major emitters were homes, businesses and industrial operations (17 percent) and electricity generation (14 percent).
Idaho’s forests also showed up on the list. Trees cover about 41 percent of the state’s landscape. Through photosynthesis, the trees soak up carbon dioxide and store it in biomass. The carbon is released through live trees’ respiration, the decay of dead trees, and forest fires.
In Idaho, forests are actually carbon emitters instead of carbon sinks, responsible for about 10 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the report.
“The biggest reason is that we have so much fire,” Ramsdell said. Forest fires release carbon, methane and nitrous oxide. “It’s like an uncontrolled factory that can run for a month,” he said.
Idaho hasn’t pursued aggressive statewide policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions like Washington or California have. Idaho’s Gov. Butch Otter has questioned the connection between burning fossil fuels and warmer temperatures.
Last year, Otter signed an executive order calling for a statewide inventory of greenhouse gas emissions. He also directed state agencies to develop plans to reduce their emissions.
“We can have the debate about what is causing it,” said Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary.
“The issue we agree on is that it does appear that there are impacts increasing world temperatures. To the extent that we can, let’s try to reduce what we are putting into the atmosphere,” Hanian said.