OPED: It's time to leave behind those fossil fuels

York Dispatch
Jon Clark, Citizens Climate Lobby

A remarkable thing happened in Paris back in December — 195 nations signed an agreement which will bring about the end of the fossil fuels era in an effort to protect the planet from catastrophic global warming.

U.S. President Barack Obama, centre, arrives for a group photo as part of the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015.

Fossil fuels had a good run. There is no denying their ability to store energy and the advancements that society has made because of “cheap” and abundant fossil fuels. But there is also no denying the downsides to their use.

The scientific community overwhelmingly agrees, rising levels of greenhouse gas accumulating in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is heating the planet and causing our climate to change. Other negative effects include: rapid warming and acidification of the oceans, melting ice sheets and glaciers adding to sea level rise, droughts and flooding which threaten our food supplies, and expanding ranges of disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes and ticks which carry diseases like Lyme disease, West Nile virus, Dengue fever, and the latest addition to our vocabulary, the Zika virus.

While fossil fuels are abundant, they are finite, non-renewable and becoming costlier to extract. A supply glut and the resulting crash in oil prices has caused about 40 American and Canadian oil companies to file for bankruptcy in the last year or so.  Oil producers struggle as they lose money on every barrel they produce.

The future of coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, is looking bleak. Consumption is declining dramatically as coal-fired power plants are shut down. Low natural gas prices and environmental regulations seem to be sealing coal’s fate. Just weeks ago, Arch Coal, one of the United States’ largest coal companies, filed for bankruptcy, joining several of its competitors.

The Paris Agreement sent an important signal to the global market for fossil fuels. Investors are becoming more nervous about the prospect of “stranded assets”, fossil fuels rendered unusable due to countries' climate regulations, competitive energy sources or both. Scientists say the majority of remaining fossil fuels must be left in the ground to reach the targets set by governments.

Fossil fuels are fuels while renewable energies such as wind, solar and geothermal are technologies which extract unlimited amounts of free “fuel” from the wind, sun and earth. Just like cell phones and computers, renewable energy technology will become cheaper and more efficient as more investment dollars shift towards the technology. The price of U.S. solar power has dropped 70 percent since 2009 while the cost of wind power dropped by 66 percent in just six years. It’s no wonder renewable energy accounted for almost half of the world’s new power plants in 2014, representing a “clear sign that an energy transition is underway,” according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The economics of clean energy are changing fast.

A groundbreaking new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado, Boulder, found wind and sunshine could power most of the United States by 2030 without raising electricity prices and could slash greenhouse gas emissions from power production by up to 78 percent below 1990 levels within 15 years while meeting increased demand.  Critics often cite the intermittency dilemma of renewables saying the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine 24/7.  Researchers solved the dilemma by scaling up the renewable energy generation system to match the scale of weather systems, since the sun is shining or winds are blowing somewhere across the United States all of the time.  According to Scientific American, key is “high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) transmission” to supplement the grid. “Photovoltaics and wind turbines often generate direct-current electricity, so transmitting in direct current removes a conversion step that costs money and saps power.”

A clean energy future will create jobs and save money while cleaning our air and water. The transition away from fossil fuels to a more sustainable society is underway. Congress can reduce the need for government regulations and speed the transition by imposing a fee on polluting, carbon-based fuels and return all of the collected revenue equally back to households. It’s time for Congress to leave behind the dirty, outdated 18th century fuels that drag our economy down and move us on into the 21st century.

— Jon Clark is the co-regional coordinator for Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s Mid Atlantic region and lives in Dover.