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OP-ED: Renewable energy must be the future, if we are to have one at all

Scott Martelle
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
This April 20, 2011, file photo shows some of the 30,000 solar panels that make up the Public Service Company of New Mexico's new 2-megawatt photovoltaic array in Albuquerque, N.M.

The world still relies far too much on burning fossil fuels for energy, but an annual accounting of new energy sources carries some heartening news: Nearly 75% of new electricity generation capacity last year involved renewable energy — an all-time record.

Yes, the world still relies too much on burning fossil fuel to create energy. But the 2019 annual report from the International Renewable Energy Agency shows that the world continues to move in the right direction, at least in some areas, as it has for the past decade.

Carbon Brief, a British-based nonprofit covering climate science, notes that too many countries are still building too many coal-fired power plants, particularly in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Over the last 20 years, the world — driven by China and India — has doubled its coal-fired capacity to about 2,045 gigawatts, Carbon Brief reports, adding that another 200 gigawatts in coal-fired capacity are under construction, with 300 gigawatts more on planning boards. That growth contrasts with significant net reductions in coal-fired capacity through the retirement of plants in the U.S. and Europe, and a slowdown of new construction.

Notably, much of that coal power is being replaced by natural-gas-fueled plants, which produce far less greenhouse gas emissions than coal plants but nonetheless contribute to global warming.

So the faster the world can minimize reliance on burning fossil fuels, the better chance we have at limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels, the limit scientists (yes there are such people walking among us) say we need to observe if we are to avoid the worst effects of our profligate carbon emissions.

According to Carbon Brief, observing that 1.5-degree Celsius limit will require us to reduce global coal use by 80% this decade.

The current coronavirus pandemic has, at least temporarily, made a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions. But that reflects a stalled economy rather than smart energy consumption choices. The pandemic is a naturally occurring threat to humans, as were SARS and MERS before it. Global warming, by contrast, is being driven by human behavior; it is a self-inflicted crisis.

We can best address the climate crisis by changing practices, by converting our global economy from fossil fuels to renewable sources, by using the force of our collective will to change our collective behavior and reduce the damage our actions inflict on the environment, which we rely on for our very survival.

The stats that show we are moving in the right direction, albeit it too slowly, are a positive sign during these trying days.

But they are also a further spur to action. We can see where decisions, policies and actions lead to positive effects, but also where continued self-destructive actions — beginning with burning coal — imperil us all.

And that threat lies far beyond the reach of a vaccine.