The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the damage fossil fuels inflict on our environment. In just a few short weeks, with fossil fuel usage plunging and millions of Americans staying home to prevent the spread of disease, our air is cleaner, our water is clearer, and global emissions are falling.
The reality, however, is not that simple.
Experts from the United Nations have said that they expect this drop in emissions to be only temporary. Fossil fuel usage will inevitably spike again once industries and economies reopen and restart, endangering the IPCC’s target to halve carbon emissions within the next decade in order to avoid climate catastrophe.
Some – including well-recognized filmmakers in a feature-length YouTube video billed as a documentary – may say clean energy is not the answer. They may advocate for other solutions, such as reducing our individual consumption habits or a drastic reduction of resource use in all areas of our lives and economies. Those are certainly important pieces of the puzzle, but the simple truth is that we need energy for everything – from lighting our homes to transporting goods and people.
What we truly need to address the climate crisis and allow both nature and society to heal and prosper is a swift, just, and global transition to a 100 percent clean energy economy. And the good news is that a just transition is underway and already improving the health and economies of communities around the world.
Right now, too much of our energy comes from fossil fuels. It’s time to shift away from fossil fuels once and for all in a way that doesn’t leave vulnerable or developing communities behind economically.
Here are just a few reasons why the clean energy transition offers a credible and realistic roadmap to address the climate crisis:
1. The purpose of the clean energy transition is to develop tangible energy alternatives that will make fossil fuel usage obsolete. That is already happening. The momentum of the clean energy transition is unstoppable. Worldwide, coal burning fell three percent last year – the largest decline on record. New coal power plant capacity has fallen by two-thirds since 2015, and at the same time, wind power capacity alone experienced a compound annual growth rate of 14.8 percent from 2010 to 2018. And by 2024, global renewable capacity is set to expand nearly 50 percent.
2. Clean energy is becoming more and more efficient and avoids significantly more pollution and emissions than is expended in its manufacture. Solar and wind energy have made incredible advancements over the last decade. These increasingly efficient renewable energy technologies have life expectancies that span multiple decades and play a critical role in avoiding harmful greenhouse gas emissions. For example, a rooftop solar system that meets half of a household’s electricity use would save the CO2 emissions equivalent of driving 225,108 miles in an average passenger vehicle.
Renewable sources of energy also more than make up for the emissions produced during its manufacture. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that a solar PV system must operate between 1 and 4 years to recover the energy and associated emissions generated during the production process. That time frame is known as “energy payback.” For a 2-megawatt wind turbine, the energy payback time is even shorter – estimated to be between 5 and 8 months.
As renewable technology becomes more efficient, energy payback time will continue to decrease. And the more we deploy renewable energy sources in all sectors of the economy, the more we can reduce emissions from industrial processes that will allow us to achieve a full transition to a low-carbon economy.
3. Clean energy is rapidly becoming the cheapest form of energy, removing barriers to adoption and incentivizing more communities to move away from fossil fuels. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, solar and onshore wind are the cheapest sources of electricity in at least two-thirds of the world. Clean energy isn’t just better for our health, it’s the smart economic choice.
4. The electricity grid, one of the largest sources of carbon emissions, is increasingly powered by clean energy. According to the EPA, coal-fired electric generation (in kilowatt-hours [kWh]) decreased from 54 percent of electricity generation in 1990 to 28 percent in 2018. During this time period, renewable energy saw a tremendous expansion and has continued to make gains.
It’s critical that we continue this momentum until we reach an electric grid fully powered by renewables. Six cities in the United States are already powered by 100 percent renewable energy, and hundreds more have committed to achieving that goal.
5. Clean energy industry careers are among the fastest growing jobs in the United States. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the two fastest-growing jobs in the United States are solar installer and wind turbine service technician. As the clean energy transition accelerates around the country and the world, it represents an important opportunity to create a more just and equitable economy by providing people with good-paying jobs.
6. Fossil fuels take a toll on human health, and too often, frontline and minority communities are disproportionately impacted. The clean energy transition isn’t just an environmental issue. It’s a social justice issue. Communities of color are more likely to be located near coal-fired power plants or other fossil fuel facilities that emit harmful pollution into the air we breathe and water we drink. For many, the transition to clean energy is a life and death issue, and we cannot continue to allow frontline communities to bear that burden.
As our window to address the climate crisis narrows, it’s more important than ever that we continue moving our countries, cities, towns, communities, and businesses toward clean energy and away from the dangers of fossil fuels.
We don’t have time to wait.
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