General Overview

Preliminary Toxic Release Inventory data for 2020 – Pandemic Trough

The Environmental Protection Agency published its preliminary 2020 Toxic Release Inventory data for 2020, and – no surprise – total emissions are down. The US annual total at under 3bn pounds is the lowest since the mid 1990s.

As economic activity slowed, companies in the Industrials and Financials (firms owned by private equity or other investment vehicles like pension and sovereign funds) sectors dropped the most.  Consumer Discretionary, which is comprised mostly of big-ticket items like cars and home furnishings and appliances, also declined.

Toxic releases in billions of pounds by sector of the parent company

Contributing to the drop are some longer-term trends, however. Utilities continued to pollute less with total releases of toxic chemicals into the air and water dropping to an all-time low of 1.6bn pounds. This reflects the continued switch away from coal and to natural gas and renewables in power generation.

Emissions from energy companies – oil and gas extraction, refining and marketing – dropped more sharply than in recent years as demand destruction drove down exploration and production.

Year over year changes in toxic releases 21st century

The drop in 2020 was quite close to the recession-triggered declines early in the 21st century and in 2009. The first recession led to a longer period of declines, but the drop in economic activity is only one factor. The other factor, de-industrialization and off-shoring reasserted itself late in the last decade when the economy was growing slowly but steadily. There will be rebound in toxic release totals in 2021, but the long-term trend will persist.