Can renewable energy slow climate change?

Scientific evidence demonstrates how renewable energy can slow climate change, which is being caused by a sharp increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions (also known as greenhouse gases). Understanding the role of carbon emissions and where they come from is key to understanding the global debate about climate change and how renewable energy can help climate change. Carbon emissions make up nearly all the greenhouse gas emissions from human activity that cause global warming. CO2 emissions are created from burning fossil fuels coal, oil and natural gas needed for activities like transportation, heating, and industry.

Overall, the biggest chunk of carbon emissions – about two thirds – come from burning fossil fuels for any and all purposes. That’s why the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable resources is so important to slow climate change. Renewable energy is usable energy created through naturally recurrent processes—the wind blowing or the sun shining, for example. Some common examples of renewable energy sources are solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal and biomass.

Since greenhouse gas emissions cause global warming, a look at how we produce greenhouse gas emissions clearly shows that replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is good for the environment. Globally, the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 by activity was manufacturing and construction, accounting for 24.3% the total, according Earth Charts based on data from the IEA and Climate Watch. Road transport accounted for 12.1% (with total transport rising to 16.5%). Agriculture and residential uses were similar, at 11.9% and 11% respectively. These figures do not strip out the energy sector, however. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), energy accounted for 29.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2014, followed by 19.5% for transport and 19% for industry.

The biggest source of carbon emissions in the United States in 2019 was transportation by car, truck, ship, train and airplane, which accounted for 29% of the total, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. regulatory agency. Electricity generation followed closely in second place, with 25%. Approximately 62% of electricity consumed in the United States is produced by burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas, the EPA said. Industry accounted for 23%; while commercial and residential use (mostly for heating) generated 13% of the total. Agriculture generated 10% of carbon emissions, and land use produced 12% since even managed forests can consume more C02 than they produce.

The damage that oil, gas and coal is doing to the environment is well documented. In August 2021, the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 6th Assessment Report – widely seen to be the most authoritative and up to date source on the topic -- asserted that climate change was caused by human activity.

A full transition from fossil fuels to renewable, clean energy will not happen overnight, but the need is growing increasingly urgent. Fortunately, so is the momentum, driven by global social movements, investors, consumer groups, activists, and voters around the world. This shift is also supported by falling prices for renewable energy such as solar panels, decreasing from 75 to 80% between 2009 and 2015.

A transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy to slow climate change is in progress, and is being supported with industrial knowhow, financial incentives, corporate and government targets, and technological innovation. Renewable energy sources can effectively replace fossil fuels in key areas that keep industries and countries running, from power to transport to thermal comfort.

At the Glasgow COP26 summit in October 2021, countries explicitly committed to reducing the use of coal, and over 140 countries set net zero targets. The Glasgow Climate Pact reaffirms the Paris commitment to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C by the middle of this century. But the planet risks temperature increases much higher than that.

What can be done? All models suggest time same strategy: energy efficiency in all sectors, including building and transport; electrification of heating, transport and industries; and that decarbonization of electricity generation through renewable energy can slow climate change.


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