”We’re actually winning the fight against climate change, but most people don’t know it yet.”
That may seem a strange statement to make in a week when a landmark scientific report declares that humanity must quit fossil fuels within thirty years or risk catastrophic climate change. But Danny Kennedy, a former top Greenpeace activist who helps run the global solar company Sungevity, says that solar and wind power are growing so fast worldwide that they will displace fossil fuels much sooner than usually thought. He has lots of supporting data, much of which comes from the crazy tree-huggers at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Deutsche Bank and the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Not that the fight is over. When the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a summary of their Fifth Assessment Report on September 27, they effectively endorsed activist Bill McKibben’s argument that most of the earth’s remaining fossil fuels must stay in the ground. The IPCC calculated that, from this day forward, humanity can burn no more than one-half of 1 trillion metric tons of carbon if we are to have a better than 50-50 chance of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. At current rates, this “carbon budget” will be used up by the early 2040s. The upshot: the great bulk of the 3 trillion tons of fossil fuels still underground must remain there.
Encouragingly, the Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed the first limits on how much carbon new power plants may emit. Those limits, to be implemented next year if the EPA stands up to coal industry resistance, will make it almost impossible for new plants to run on coal, the most carbon-intensive conventional fossil fuel. As a practical matter, new coal was already dead in the United States, thanks to the grassroots activism of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign and a plunge in natural gas prices. The real test comes next year, when the EPA issues rules for existing power plants, the source of one-quarter of US greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile, it’s renewables to the rescue. Kennedy argues that wind and especially solar are growing exponentially as millions around the world leave fossil fuels behind. In Germany, which has pledged to forsake fossil fuels and nuclear, “there are now thirty gigawatts of solar on rooftops—that’s the equivalent of thirty nuclear power plants,” he says. In China, renewables will make up more than half the power capacity added through 2030, when renewables’ capacity will equal coal’s, projects Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The solar growth rates in Kennedy’s homeland, Australia, are even steeper, rising from a mere 900 households in 2006 to 1 million today. “There is nothing else like these rates of adopting a new technology,” he says. “They’re faster than the adoption rates for cellphones.”