Clean Energy Is Booming. Now Here’s the Bad News.

Clean Energy Is Booming. Now Here’s the Bad News.

Clean Energy Is Booming. Now Here’s the Bad News.

The transition away from dirty energy is as much a political battle as it is a technological challenge.


When it comes to building more clean energy, there’s good news all around. New wind and solar generation surged 22 percent this year, which is part of a longer-term trend. Environment America found that the United States generated three times as much power from wind and solar as it did in 2012. This shift is also global: A report analyzing data from dozens of countries finds that wind and solar account for most of the growth in new electricity generation.

This is the good news. The bad news? Climate pollution doesn’t appear to be declining much at all. In the first half of the year, emissions from power generation fell just 1 percent. Globally, emissions were basically unchanged. New sources of clean energy are certainly preventing things from getting worse, but they are not doing nearly enough to drive significant reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases that are heating the planet.

On the one hand, this might seem surprising. One of the most important things we can do to combat the climate crisis, we are told, is to produce a lot more clean energy. The recently passed climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act, is largely built on this premise. Easily the most ambitious climate legislation ever passed, it is loaded with incentives to create more solar and wind power, and to encourage the purchase of electric vehicles.

The assumption here is that building new sources of cheaper, cleaner energy will push fossil fuels out of the marketplace. The problem is that we have enough experience already to know that things do not work this way in reality. A Food & Water Watch analysis of power generation found that the share of renewables rose from about 3 percent to 11.5 percent between 2010 and 2020—a sizable increase, for sure. But over the same time, fossil gas went from 22.7 percent to almost 40 percent. All the while, fossil fuel production increased across the board.

And that, in the end, is what prevents a more rapid decline in emissions. As long as new sources of pollution are being built to exist alongside older polluters, there’s really no way to make substantial progress.

The period of the last decade provides the clearest lesson. This was the time of the so-called fracking revolution, which backers touted as a way to build a bridge to a clean, renewable future. But what happened instead was just what critics feared: Fossil fuels became more deeply entrenched than ever, and that much ballyhooed “bridge” did not actually exist. What’s worse, the supposedly green benefits of fracking have been revealed to be little more than industry spin. Nowadays, fossil fuel companies are not keen on selling fracked gas as a climate-friendly solution, so they’ve moved on to hyping hydrogen and touting things like carbon capture and biofuels, which will do little more than further entrench their power as they gobble billions in subsidies to prop up techno-fixes that do not deliver.

What should be clear by now is that getting off fossil fuels is a lot harder than simply building new sources of cleaner energy. The necessary transition away from dirty energy—which drives climate chaos, threatens clean drinking water, and creates deadly air pollution—is as much a political battle as it is a technological challenge. Powerful corporate interests are heavily invested in the status quo, and banks are more than happy to continue betting billions of dollars on new pipelines, power plants, petrochemicals, and gas export terminals. They do not intend to cease operations to make way for cleaner, cheaper energy and a more livable planet.

For some, the Inflation Reduction Act’s reliance on tax incentives and other market mechanisms that will encourage clean energy production is what made it so politically attractive. But missing from this approach are any solutions that would directly curtail dirty energy. These types of supply-side policies would prioritize limits on pollution—not just the hope that creating more pathways for clean energy development will shift reality.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex policy landscape, the best way to rapidly reduce pollution is to actually reduce the activities that create that pollution in the first place—namely fossil fuels. This outcome is achievable in a number of different ways. In New York, for example, state regulators denied permits for a new fossil fuel power plant because these facilities do not comply with the state’s new climate law, which set concrete clean power and emissions reduction targets. At the federal level, a bill called the Future Generations Protection Act aims to confront the supply of fossil fuels by banning new power plants that spew climate pollution, stopping fracking, and banning crude oil and natural gas exports. But even without new laws (which of course depend on the whims of an intractably divided Congress), President Joe Biden has an array of executive powers at his disposal—including declaring a climate emergency—that could curtail new fossil fuel permits immediately.

Creating new sources of clean energy is obviously necessary, but recent history tells us that without a rapid phaseout of fossil fuels, climate pollution will not decline fast enough.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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