Clean Energy Progress Shows Climate Challenge Can Be Met

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“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.… Human influence on the climate system is clear.… Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Like any scientific document, there is complexity and nuance to the new report from the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change, the all-star team of scientists pulled together by the United Nations to advise the world on the state of the planet. And now much hot air will be expended dissecting the document, including parsing the pause, or “hiatus” as the panel termed the flattening of temperature rises in the past 15 years.

Solar Installation Costs

image via USDAgov/Flickr

But the takeaway, from a clean energy perspective, is actually quite simple. Nothing has changed, except perhaps that what we knew at Kyoto way back in the ’90s is now even more firmly established: We need to transform our energy use such that carbon dioxide is not released into the atmosphere, and we need to do it now.

“By the mid-21st century the magnitudes of the projected changes are substantially affected by the choice of emissions scenario,” the panel says.

The good news is that in past two decades, we’ve learned some things about what it will take to decarbonize.

We’ve learned, for instance, that with commitment, aggressive adoption of renewable energy technologies can be attained. In 1999, Greenpeace and the wind industry, which barely existed at the time, laid out a scenario under which wind power would provide 10 percent of the world’s electricity by 2020. And every single year from 1999 through 2011, the actual amount installed beat the scenario, which many observers had scoffed at.

We’ve recently fallen off the pace just a bit, but getting back on it shouldn’t be difficult. Wind is becoming cheaper and cheaper. And so is solar, where we’ve learned that with policy driving adoption, prices will come down. The per-watt price of crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells was at least $6 as the new millennium dawned. Now? It’s less than a buck.

Every day, we’re finding that the economic hurdles to renewable energy adoption are becoming less formidable. Every day we’re finding technical hurdles – like integration – which we had feared, might not be hurdles after all. Elusive cheap energy storage is constantly talked about as a necessity if renewable penetration rates are to rise. That might be the case – but there are also more and more voices suggesting that it might not.

Of course there are immense challenges, particularly in the developing countries (though even China, choking on smog, is finding new inspiration to move beyond fossil fuels). The transportation-fuels question might be the biggest issue we face. Fuel economy can be improved, but that won’t be enough. Biofuels progress has been disappointing. Carbon capture, which every climate-change-busting scenario relies on but which many greens weirdly dismiss, needs to advance faster.

As Ryan Koronowski pointed out on Climate Progress, there are 2,795 gigatons worth of GHG emissions lurking in our known fossil fuel reserves. The IPCC has found that burning more than 10 percent of those reserves will push the world over the 2-degrees Celsius of warming that is seen as a safe cutoff. The margin for error has narrowed to the point of disappearing – but the dire scenario can avoided.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.