This article is part of our “CleanTechnica Answer Box” collection. For some reason, there are certain anti-cleantech talking points that get thrown around over and over that are absolute bunk. We got tired of dealing with the same myths repeatedly and also saw others who spent time responding to these untruths in many discussions on CleanTechnica and elsewhere could use some help more efficiently and effectively doing so, so at the suggestion of a reader we created this resource in the same vein as Skeptical Science’s responses to global warming & climate change myths.
Myth: renewable energy isn’t helpful or important for stopping global warming.
Short answer: Fast and society-threatening global warming is being caused by several large-scale human activities. Aside from burning fossil fuels for energy, for example, large-scale deforestation for livestock “production” is a major problem. It’s true that renewable energy alone can’t stop global warming, but anyone arguing that renewable energy is pointless because it can’t stop the problem alone is missing the point. Renewable energy is one of the most important solutions to global warming and should be pursued as strongly and quickly as possible if we want to have any hope of stopping catastrophic climate change.
If it seems impossible to envision most of the world’s countries running on clean, renewable energy, just consider that it has already been predicted that approximately 100% could do so by 2050. “Mark Z. Jacobson, the famed professor at the Stanford School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences, and 26 of his colleagues have compiled a report that shows exactly how 139 nations could transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050 without throwing millions of people out of work. In fact, they contend that the changeover would actually spur job growth while dramatically reducing carbon emissions.”
If these nations would follow the roadmap and install the technology to make the transition happen, tens of millions of jobs would be created.
While the job boost may be a major reason to be happy about such a transition, however, and low-cost renewable energy will mean lower energy costs than if we didn’t have solar and wind power, the core impetus for renewable energy’s development and growth today is to help stop global warming.
Climate change is happening, despite the verbiage and rhetoric of the deniers. Some of the key indicators it is occurring have been presented on the US EPA website: “Average temperatures have risen across the contiguous 48 states since 1901, with an increased rate of warming over the past 30 years. Eight of the top 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998. Average global temperatures show a similar trend, and all of the top 10 warmest years on record worldwide have occurred since 1998.”
The EPA is part of the federal government — it is not an environmental activist group like Earth First or even the Sierra Club. It doesn’t have an activist agenda and is based on the scientific findings of objective research.
Another important indicator related to increasing heat on the planet is in the water. “Ocean surface temperatures increased around the world during the 20th century. Even with some year-to-year variation, the overall increase is clear, and sea surface temperatures have been consistently higher during the past three decades than at any other time since reliable observations began in the late 1800s.”
Of course, these are just two of several indicators. Climate change deniers point to certain cherry-picked stats as supposed proof that the overall warming isn’t happening, like pointing out narrow areas where there is still sea ice, but they are only focused on the outliers, not the overall trend. The rate of sea ice melting is the fastest its been in 1500 years. In 2016, more coral died in the Great Barrier Reef than in any previous year. And there are numerous other signals that warming is not only occurring but is already significantly disturbing the climate and world we’re used to.
The overuse of fossil fuels is a primary contributor to climate change, and this fact has been confirmed based on theory and empirical evidence thousands of times over. As such, reducing fossil fuel use is a primary way to stop
Image by A12
The Renewable Energy Transition
Germany has been a global leader in the development of solar and wind power, and yet even with its commitment to them, climate change emissions have not dropped that much. The reason for this situation is that the country needs far more renewable energy to replace its current over reliance on coal. However, it’s not because the renewable energy installed isn’t working. Rather, it’s that Germany chose to phase out nuclear energy quickly rather than phasing out fossil fuels more quickly. Renewable energy has largely been replacing low-emission nuclear energy.
Although Germany has grown its renewable energy production dramatically over the last 12 years or so, there still isn’t enough of it, so coal power plants there continue to burn huge amounts of coal and spew out foul air pollution. Parts of Germany have already achieved a rate of 100% renewable energy.
Costa Rica is much smaller than Germany, but it has already reached the 100% renewable electricity mark for about two months consecutively.
These small areas represent a vision for the future, showing that switching to renewable energy requires no medical or breakthrough intervention, but that it does take societal will and time, depending on the base level a country is starting with and the variety of priorities the society has.
To reiterate, research has found how 139 countries could switch to 100% renewable energy. That would make a huge cut in the main source of greenhouse gases, making it one of the most valuable things we could do — if not the most valuable. However, even the aggressive scenario explained how to do so by 2050 — transitioning such large and widespread systems takes time. Renewable energy has been growing fast even as fossil fuel use has been growing because overall energy use is growing, and renewable energy needs to grow faster so that we stop adding fossil fuel power plants and increasingly shut existing ones down. Looking at emissions growth next to renewable energy growth and claiming renewables can’t solve the problem is just another form of cherry picking that ignores the fact that we need to burn a lot less fossil fuel each year and we can’t do that without renewable energy.
Electricity isn’t the only major source of greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. Transportation is another one that basically has to be addressed to stop global warming. But the most viable solution for that sector is electrification, which just further emphasizes the importance of renewable energy for electricity production — because that electricity will eventually be needed to power transportation.
Some point to new nuclear plants as a solution, because they don’t produce huge amounts of greenhouses gases. Nuclear is very expensive, though. According to a U.S. Energy Information Administration, the cost is more than 50% greater than solar power or wind power.
Depending on factors like the nuclear plant size and complexity, construction can require 5 to 15 years. If there are construction delays, total costs can double or increase even more.
Wind and solar power installations can be built in months, and they cost considerably less per kWh of electricity produced. They also don’t produce any hazardous waste, and they can’t melt down or leak anything toxic. In other words, they can’t harm human health or the environment on a catastrophic level like nuclear power can, which also means less chance of catastrophic economic harm.
In other words, since renewable energy is cheaper, faster to build, and safer, it is clearly a better option for stopping global warming than nuclear energy — which might have made more sense in the 1970s, but not today.
Solar and wind power are also very gradually becoming more and more productive due to research and innovation. By 2027, the “average” PV solar panel might have an efficiency of about 26%, up from today’s rate of about 17% for a new solar panel. This percentage might not sound like much, but it means solar power systems will be more productive. Fewer panels will need to be installed, which translates to even lower costs.
All reasonable indicators point to renewable energy as a very important part of a climate change solution. To claim otherwise, well, doesn’t make any sense when you look at the causes of global warming and the most viable answers to those problems.
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