It’s all here! Everything we need to solve climate change exists. Today.
It is easy, and not altogether unjustified, to see climate change as just too complex, too big, too unwieldy, or even too controversial to even begin to try to solve.Certainly, the oil and gas industries, lobbyists and faux science think tanks have made a cottage industry of either denying climate change, suggesting it is China’s fault or it is impossible to solve.
The truth is we can solve climate change, and we can do so in the next 10-15 years. The technology exists to eliminate over 95% of greenhouse gas emissions, more than enough to solve the problem, and suck out the CO2 from the atmosphere. With these two steps we can stop the growth of CO2 concentrations at the 430 ppm level by 2030 and slowly, or quickly, reduce emissions after that.
Even better, we can do so economically, creating jobs, increasing incomes, securing energy independence, and improving health around the world. “You may say I’m a dreamer,” as John Lennon pronounced, “but I’m not the only one”.
So let’s show the math.
Major Uses of Fossil Fuels
Fossil fuels have a lot of uses, and not all will be replaced. But the major uses involve burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat and transportation. When we replace those three we will have effectively stopped the growth of greenhouse gasses and can start the long decline.
Coal, gas and, to a lesser extent, oil, have been used for electricity production around the world for a hundred years. However, they are no longer the cheapest new energy source. That title belongs to wind and solar energy. Even combined with batteries, which are dropping in cost substantially, the cost is at or near parity.
In much of the world, it is just not cost effective to build new fossil plants. In the United States, coal use, for instance, has dropped from over 50% of electricity production at the turn of the century to about 22% today, and dropping quickly. Public utility commissions are required by law to provide consumers with the most cost effective long term energy supply and over the last decade-plus, a team of Sierra Club Beyond Coal lawyers have made that point to PUCs around the country, winning the argument on facts and economics.
While new fossil plants are on the decline, solar and wind are also approaching the point where they cost less than even the coal to run the plant. Forget about the O&M, capital expenditures and sunk costs. We can reasonably expect coal to phase out almost entirely over the next 10-15 years.
Replacing fossil fuels is a combination of zero emission electricity sources, namely onshore wind, offshore wind, solar farms and residential solar. New York State, for example, expects to have a zero carbon upstate grid by 2030, and no emissions at all by 2040.
Fossil fuel investment just doesn’t make any economic sense any more, while renewables are getting cheaper and cheaper and have easier modular deployment in their favor.
Battery technology, a subject for another article, is only enhancing renewables, depleting natural gas of its peaker plant juggernaut one additional percent at a time.
The future is all electric and that goes for heat production as well. In the residential and commercial space, heat pumps and mini splits are already both more efficient and largely more cost effective than gas. Gas as a heating source is, more slowly than coal for sure, losing out to electricity, with aggressive industry lobbying trying to slow the progress.
However, across Europe heat pumps are becoming the norm as the region weans itself from Russian gas. In the US, President Biden’s economic plan is promoting American jobs combined with green technology, like heat pumps, to bring about an economic twofer.
While some states are more aggressively phasing out new gas hook ups, the pure money of it all will take over new installations and then replacement appliances over the next decade.
Battery technology, again for another day, will also replace gas and propane generators a bit further down the road.
The natural gas industry may, eventually, face an existential issue. As gas use declines from the highly profitable peaker plants and home heating, at some point the cost of maintaining the pipelines will create an unsustainable situation as the cost is spread across fewer and fewer people.
The US EV industry hit 5% of sales in 2022 and is at 7% so far in 2023. The ‘tipping point’ of technologies when the move from early adopters to the mainstream occurs, tends to be at the 5-7% uptake rate, at which point it quickly increases to 80%. The global EV industry simply can not get to 80% as fast as this curve suggests it will want to. But every major automaker is turning their business models on their heads going all-in with EVs.
The reasons are simple. EVs are the better, more cost effective option based on full life costs. Government subsidies aimed at solving climate change is helping as well.
Along with the major manufacturers adopting EV strategies, most types of vehicles are now offered in EV form, including sedans, crossovers, trucks, even utility vehicles like street sweepers.
Battery technology is coming down in price, enabling EVs to cross parity with their internal combustion counterparts, dropping over 90% since 2010, and continuing. Range is also increasing, with EVs regularly getting over 300 miles on a charge, and 500-750 mile range batteries are in coming or in the lab. Charging times may drop to just 5-10 minutes by 2030. Indeed, this massive build out of charging stations around the US, while fully necessary, may end up being overkill in time.
The solutions to climate change – the big ones – all exist today and are almost all cost effective today. Our policy and decision making needs to be about phase out and new deployment speed. The future is clean and green, and filled with clear air, good jobs, and national security, but we need to get going fast.