Can renewable energy sources replace fossil fuels?

A full transition from fossil fuels to renewable, clean energy will not happen overnight, but the need is growing more urgent. Fortunately, so is the momentum around the issue, as policy-shaking global efforts like the Fridays for Future movement, spurred on by young activists like Greta Thunberg, have shown. Renewables can effectively replace fossil fuels, creating crucial environmental, social and economic benefits.

Global dependence on oil, natural gas and coal–and the damage this dependence inflicts–is well documented. But a transition away from fossil fuels is in progress and simply needs to be expedited. Alternative energy sources can effectively replace fossil fuels in key areas that keep industries and countries running, from power to public and private transport to thermal comfort.

Barriers to moving out of the fossil fuel age

According to renewable energy policy think tank REN21, most barriers to moving out of the fossil fuel age are political rather than practical. Indeed, while a large measure of the responsibility rests with governments to commit to identifying competitive alternatives to fossil fuels, as REN21 puts it, “patience and faith in politicians, who hesitate and waver, is fading.” Hence the growing pressure that constituents and activists, from grassroots organizers to major companies, are placing on them. Major players do seem to be taking note: in the United States, for example, President Joe Biden took executive action to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement within hours of his inauguration.  Adherence to the commitments set out in the agreement will be a key factor in the move away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy. As the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reminds us, with the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016, participating countries “pledged to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions, as well as to adapt to the impacts of climate change. By scaling up renewable energy, countries can sharply reduce one major source of the problem: energy-related CO2 emissions.”

Signs of progress in the transition away from fossil fuels

In a practical sense, employment in the renewable energy sector continues to grow, according to another study by the IRENA. This is noteworthy, since corporate or individual opposition to long-term change in energy approach is usually rooted in the perceived short-term effects on employment, job creation, and economies. But renewable technology costs are lower than ever, and digitalization can facilitate smoother integration of the power, heating, cooling and transport sectors. Effective integration will be key to building a renewable energy-fueled world, but the possibility is within reach, as shown by pioneering nations like Denmark, where the government has committed to phasing out fossil fuels by 2050.

Solar energy, in particular, is on the uptick, even in countries slower to embrace ambitious commitments like Denmark’s. According to the International Energy Agency, solar energy is one of the few technologies currently on track to meet global climate targets. It is not just the environment that stands to benefit, but economies, too: in the majority of countries, solar PV (photovoltaic systems), along with onshore wind, are the most inexpensive ways of introducing new electricity-generating plants. Depending on individual countries’ resources and financing opportunities, solar PV and wind can threaten existing fossil fuel plants. Indeed, IEA projections indicate that total installed wind and solar PV capacity is on track to outstep natural gas by 2023 and coal by 2024.

Still, a number of estimates and studies indicate that a century is likely the minimum amount of time needed for a total overhaul of the energy system and a complete transition to renewables, even if significant progress is underway.


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