The last week has seen a flood of stories on clean energy’s prospects – stories that make your head spin with their conflicting tales of renewable energy’s prospects of ending our dangerous addiction to fossil fuel power from coal and gas.
A renewables transition will “happen without Trump” because of market forces – or can’t do the job and is shaping up as “likely very costly.” (Both from the same day’s NYT.) Cities, states and businesses are filling in the leadership vacuum created by the Trump Administration – or they are falling far short. Wind is making it impossible for fossil fuels to compete in Texas power markets – or Texas will continue to be the biggest carbon emitting state of all because wind is too unreliable. (Both from Bloomberg.)
And all of these perspectives are coming from scientists and analysts who are pro-clean energy and favor strong action to protect the climate – this is not a fight ginned up by Exxon Mobil, Peabody Coal or climate denialists from the Heartland Institute.
So what’s the argument? Where do we stand on the ability of clean, renewable energy sources to eliminate the risk to the climate posed by continuing reliance on coal, oil and natural gas?
That depends on the question you ask. If you look at where we are today, our current emission rates are far too high. If continued unchecked, they will rapidly destabilize the weather and increase climate risks to catastrophic levels. (Mathematicians call this the function.) If you look at the progress we are making, the future looks brighter, but still quite scary. The commitments governments made at the Paris Climate agreement, and the trends for deployment of clean energy vs. fossil fuels, all show future emissions declining, but not declining enough to stabilize the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. (This question, “How fast are we progressing?” is what mathematicians call the first derivative.) But if you compare the pace of progress this year with that pace five years ago, you can see that decarbonization is accelerating. Not only are we cutting emissions, we are cutting them faster with each passing year. If we continue to accelerate that progress long enough, then we can look forward to eliminating fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions and stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.(Mathematicians call this measure of acceleration “the second derivative.”)
Let’s apply these three measurements to the most heated of this week’s controversies, the attack by a group of prominent climate and energy scientists (supporters of renewable power) on journal articles by Stanford scientist Mark Jacobson which argued that…