Thursday, April 14, 2016

100% renewables or climate chaos? People power needed

We now know we can run the world 100% on clean, renewable energy. The question is whether we can do it in time to prevent the world from plunging into full-blown climate chaos. 

An avalanche of studies points the way to a 100% world largely based on wind and solar energy. They illuminate how to reach 100% in all sectors – electricity, transportation, and heating/cooling – by 2050.  Most prominent are roadmaps for 139 countries and 50 U.S. states done by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson and his team, and the Energy Revolution series done by Greenpeace.  There are many others.

This is more than an academic exercise. Nations are acting. Costa Rica plans to reach 100% renewable electricity this year, and Scotland by 2020.  Denmark has targeted 100% in electricity, heating and cooling by 2030, and to end all fossil fuel burning by 2050. Sri Lanka aims for 100% renewable electricity by 2030.  Hawaii is the first U.S. state to enact a 100% renewable electricity standard, with a 2045 goal.  Some 50 cities including 15 in the U.S. have made a 100% commitment including San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Copenhagen, Sydney, Frankfurt, Munich and Vancouver, B.C.  Some cover only electricity, while others sweep in all sectors.  Four U.S. cities now draw 100% of their electricity from renewables, as do 74 German localities. Companies aiming at 100% renewable electricity include Google, Facebook, Apple, Nike, Starbucks and Proctor & Gamble. 

A 100% renewable world is possible. The big question is - Can we achieve it fast enough to avert a complete climate meltdown?  Because oil companies systematically monkeywrenched the political system to prevent significant carbon regulation for over 25 years, we are very late in the game.  With carbon pollution growing at a record rate, the world is on track for the worst-case climate havoc, a nature-wracking, civilization-destroying 4-5° C heat upsurge this century.

How fast do we need to drop carbon pollution to get off this dead-end track? Almost unimaginably fast.  Some would say at a rate that is impossible. Nonetheless, we must let the best climate science set the goalpost and work backwards from there to make the scientifically necessary the politically feasible.  That means we must break through the political deadlock that has stalemated real progress.  And that calls for a people power revolution.  The upcoming Break Free actions, aiming at the largest wave of civil disobedience against the fossil fuel industry in history, are an opening salvo.  Northwest actions are slated for the Anacortes, Washington oil refineries May 13-15. 

So what does the science say?  James Hansen, perhaps the world’s leading climate scientist, pulled together one of the most comprehensive studies to ground the Our Children’s Trust youth climate lawsuits now underway against states and the federal government. He and his grandchildren are plaintiffs in the latter. (A major victory was just won in the federal suit.)

The Hansen study says we must stop global warming in its tracks.  To do this we must keep total warming to just a little over 1°C rather than the 2°C often cited or the 1.5°C aspirational limit set at the recent Paris climate summit. That means holding additional warming to no more than 0.4°C over today. The aim must be to reduce carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million by 2100, the point at which the planet stops accumulating solar heat and climate recovery can begin. They are now over 400 ppm. Says Hansen, “Unless a human ‘tipping point’ is reached soon, with implementation of effective policy actions, large irreversible climate changes will become unavoidable.” 

Coast-drowning sea level rise would be one such change, happening more rapidly than generally expected. When temperature was around 1°C greater than today, ocean levels were 20-30 feet higher. Hansen says oceans could elevate 10 feet in as little as 50 years, taking out large swathes of cities including New York, London and Shanghai.

But the most deadly disruption would be acceleration of feedback loops – global warming feeding global warming – already under way.  Super-potent heat-trapping gas methane will leak from huge Arctic sinks at a more rapid rate. Arctic Ocean icepack that reflects 90% of solar heat back into space will increasingly be replaced with blue water that absorbs 90%. That will melt methane-laden permafrost and seabed ice crystals even faster.  Feedbacks will leave our children in a nightmare world careening into climate disruption beyond any possibility of human control

Hansen’s human “tipping point” entails deep and immediate reductions in carbon pollution. If we had started in 2013 when the study was done, 6%-per-year carbon reductions would have been required. The curve is steeply rising. If the world waits until 2020 required annual cuts will be 15%.

In 2016, it is clear we must aim for at least 10% annual carbon reductions to recover our climate, and something like an 80% reduction in all sectors by 2030 – 10% is the conclusion of other scientists as well. It should be noted that Hansen’s is not even the most challenging science, nor is 2030 the most ambitious goal. A safety margin to account for uncertainties should aim for as close to 100% renewable energy by 2030 as we can get.   The Jacobson team says this is technically doable.  The challenges are political and economic. 

No doubt, achieving carbon pollution cuts sufficient to leave our children with a habitable world will take upsetting the political and economic status quo.  Coal and gas power plants must be shut down before their economic life is complete.  This will require mandates and not just market-tipping carbon prices.  Vast public investments must be made in wind, solar, energy storage and a power grid capable of  handling variable sun and wind energies. A campaign of universal building energy efficiency retrofits must be undertaken. This is not just about replacing energy sources, but using far less.

Sweeping changes must come to transportation. Virtually all road expansions must halt, including those already scheduled – A multiplicity of studies tells us traffic expands to fill the road space available to it. We must electrify transportation to the greatest degree possible.  But it will take more than electric cars. Electrified public transit must be built up at breakneck speed, including buses, light rail and interurban rail. We will need comprehensive bicycle lanes separated from car traffic a la Amsterdam or Copenhagen. A climate mobilization on the scale of World War II will be required to accomplish these transformations. 

In making the 100% renewables revolution we will have to keep our eyes on a lot of balls.  We will have to make sure benefits are distributed broadly, working toward an energy democracy that promotes local and community ownership.  We must make sure low-income people and people of color have a fair share.  We will have to ensure that displaced fossil fuel workers gain a just transition to new occupations that pay as well.  We will have to scrutinize renewables production and siting to make sure that workers are treated justly and environmental impacts are minimized. We will also have to pay attention to non-fossil carbon pollution. Hansen’s prescription includes transforming agriculture and forestry to soak 100 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere.

The 100% renewables revolution won’t be simple or easy to pull off. We must defeat the most powerful industry on Earth, fossil fuels, and their corporate allies, notably power utilities.  But to have a planetary future that is not wracked by unimaginable climate chaos, one with which our children simply cannot cope, we must undertake the revolution right away.  We must break free from fossil fuels with a rapid and just transition to 100% renewable energy. 



  1. I'm including this in my Africa messages today! If we can save a continent from being turned into a nuclear and fossil fuel mess let's do so! We can also prevent international trade in that respect.