Renewable energy and climate change; these two compelling topics, inextricably linked to our planet’s future health, repeatedly come up in articles, news stories, and general conversation. They are often used to show the importance of changing our society to prevent significant problems in the future. Contrary to popular belief, these problems aren’t only set to occur in the coming decades. In the past year alone, the effects of climate change have been visible globally in the form of severe forest fires on the US West Coast emboldened by a season of heightened aridity, reduced precipitation, and other human-caused conditions. Similarly, the failure of the electric grid in Texas, which was not built with adequate protection against the extreme cold that battered the state this past February. Experts affirm that this winter storm was caused by a phenomenon linked to global warming. These disasters will only increase without further efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) across multiple sectors. The energy production industry is one of the world’s largest contributors to GHG emissions, so the need to universalize renewable energy is a vital part of the solution.
Where we are today
Currently, a whopping 80% of American energy consumption comes from fossil fuels, while only 11% comes from renewable energies. Thus, the United States contributes a massive amount of GHGs, as much as 15% of the world’s total emissions, while only supporting about 4% of the world’s population. Fortunately, the proportion of national production from renewable sources is on the rise, steadily increasing from 13% to 18% since 2014, recently surpassing coal use for the first time in over 130 years.
As for American renewable energy consumption, the largest amount comes from biomass (44%) or organic waste materials from plants and animals. However, this source isn’t entirely “clean” in the sense that burning biofuels, or fuels derived from biomass, emits greenhouse gases*. On the other hand, the following most commonly used clean energies are wind energy (24%) and hydroelectricity (22%).
Looking at individual states, some are working hard to make their energy use more sustainable. Vermont’s electricity generation, for example, is 99% renewable, mainly thanks to its effective utilization of hydroelectricity. The next four states that produce the most of their electricity from renewable sources are as follows: Idaho with 82% of its electricity production from renewable sources, Washington State with 79%, and South Dakota and Maine, both with 75%. These figures are positive, but to clarify, this does not mean that 99% of Vermont’s energy consumption comes from renewable sources, but that 99% of electricity produced in the state comes from renewable sources. In fact, in 2019, only ⅖ of Vermont’s electricity came from in-state generation, while the rest was imported from Canada and other states.
With all these statistics, it is also important to know the costs of producing renewable energies compared to those of conventional generation techniques. A report by the financial advisor Lazard does so graphically by comparing the prices of renewable and traditional energy sources, including solar, wind, geothermal, natural gas, nuclear, and coal per unit of energy generated. Thus, the Lazard report presents a figure that allows for multiple energy sources to be compared financially (more information about this modeling technique can be found here). In almost every circumstance, utility-scale solar and wind energy, meaning large solar and wind farms used by utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric, are the cheapest options.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only metric to consider in deciding which energy source to use. Other factors that limit the expansion of renewable energy are the high initial investment, local resource potential (geographic differences in renewable energy availability; some places are windier and sunnier than others), the partial lack of supporting transmission infrastructure (the infrastructure that supports the inclusion of renewable energy in getting the electricity to the end-users), misconceptions about its stability and effectiveness, and subsidies and other regulatory preferences for fossil fuels. While these impediments constrain the growth of the industry, solutions exist to overcome these barriers.
The path the United States is following and the Paris Climate Accord
When talking about the climate and renewable energy, it would be remiss to not consider the Paris Climate Accord and the immense work that needs to be done to guarantee a safe and prosperous future. First of all, it is important to understand what it asks of the world. The Paris Agreement, formally ratified on November 4, 2016, has the ultimate goal of limiting global warming to 2 °C above the worldwide average pre-industrial temperature by 2100 (pre-industrial time is considered to be 1850 – 1900), with another ambitious but necessary goal of limiting it to 1.5 °C. While it may seem small, this 0.5-degree difference is highly consequential. By 2050, at 1.5 versus 2 °C, hundreds of millions fewer people could be exposed to climate-related disasters, 50% fewer people would be at risk of inadequate water supplies, and half as many plants and a third as many insect species critical to our food chain would go extinct, just to list a few likely outcomes. Thus, every little bit counts.
To try to attain the Paris Accord’s ambitious goal, there are no specific rules that countries have to follow in terms of their “highest possible ambition” and fair global contribution. Instead, some expectations guide the formation of policies according to a country’s financial means, developmental level, historical emissions, and the most recent science available. For example, the United States is expected to contribute more financially and have a more significant emissions reduction than a country like South Africa due to its larger economy. But while American efforts may have a greater impact than those of South Africa, it is still crucial that every country does its part to collectively avoid the worst effects of climate change.
So far, 197 countries have adopted the Paris Agreement, 189 of which with formal approval. During the Obama administration, the United States joined in November of 2015, promising $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund (the fund created by the UN to assist developing countries in fulfilling their commitments to the Paris Agreement), while having paid only $1 billion by the end of the presidency. Donald Trump withdrew the country from the Accord citing inflammatory statements and half-truths designed to seem worrisome in the absence of the real facts.
On the first day of the Biden presidency, however, the United States rejoined with the most comprehensive climate program of any American president. In fact, Biden’s objectives are more aggressive than those outlined in the Paris Agreement. Biden unveiled and began executing a $2 trillion 4-year spending program targeting net-zero emissions from electricity generation by 2035 and nationwide net-zero emissions by 2050. And of the remaining $2 billion to be paid to the Green Climate Fund? John Kerry, the US climate emissary, has promised to pay it in full.
Renewable energy, climate activism, and being a world leader
Although Biden’s program is a step in the right direction, there is still much work to be done. According to NASA, 19 of the last 20 years have been the warmest on record (except for 1998), and the worldwide average temperature has increased 1.02 °C above its pre-industrial level. On our current track, we’re expected to hit 2.9 °C above by the end of the century. Keeping in mind that the primary goal of the Paris Climate Accord is to limit global warming to 1.5 °C above the pre-industrial level, the situation demands immediate and drastic actions, but some still doubt the science and oppose solutions like the Paris Agreement. While it is not the last bastion of hope to save the world from the climate crisis, the Paris Climate Accord demonstrates a necessary model to follow. It is the duty of a superpower and leader of the world like the United States to take the mantle on this issue and show the world what it means to put future prosperity over short-term greed.
Like the Covid-19 virus has affirmed, global problems require worldwide solutions. It means nothing if one country’s restrictions better the situation domestically if the rest of the world has not done its fair share. Such is the case with the climate crisis, an international problem that requires international cooperation to enable local solutions in every country. We need to work together and put aside our differences to solve this issue.
Education of the masses
The most effective way to truly catalyze change is to actively educate the world about the political action it can take. The necessary change will not occur without the support and inspiration of the masses and enabling legislation. The policy cycle goes as such: the people support the candidates, the candidates support the policies, and the policies affect the change. After knowing that renewable energy is often the cheapest and cleanest option within the energy industry, it seems almost impossible to justify the further proliferation of fossil fuels and other “dirty” processes. As previously mentioned, decarbonizing the energy industry is only one part of the solution, since agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing also play a key role in greenhouse gas pollution. More effort is needed across the board to usher the human population into a more symbiotic relationship with the environment. If we all put our minds to it, we will come out triumphant.