By Felix Kramer and Rosana Francescato
At a pivotal moment for climate strategies, scientists and business leaders have started a public debate about how fast and how fully we can leave oil, coal, and gas behind. More people now recognize climate change as the pre-eminent issue of our time, a core focus of resistance, and a source of massive economic opportunities.
Imagine looking back and saying, “The Anthropocene Epoch started dangerously, as human activity threatened our future. But that sparked an unprecedented transition that protected our air and water. Every country pulled together to ensure a livable world. Our confidence, ingenuity, and resolve made it humanity’s greatest triumph.”
After the U.S. government walked away from its international climate commitments, other key players including companies, cities, and states – where much of the action was already taking place – upped the ante. Policies, legislation, and entrepreneurship increasingly reflect this urgency. Globally, cities and companies are setting timetables to get off fossil fuels. Some are already there! Roadmaps created by Stanford engineer/atmospheric scientist Mark Z. Jacobson and the Solutions Project he co-founded helped make “100 percent renewables by 2050” a meme.
But some have privately questioned the goal’s assumptions, research, and feasibility. Now 21 prominent climate scientists have issued a comprehensive public critique in the same Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences where Jacobson published in 2015. Jacobson’s team gave broad and line-by-line responses, to which the critics responded.
This debate highlights the views of experts who support renewables, but believe the electric grid needs a “many of the above” portfolio. To keep the lights on, they say we may long need 20 percent low- or zero-carbon non-renewable baseload capacity. They favor keeping open most atomic plants. They support efforts to develop affordable next-generation nuclear, CCS (carbon capture & sequestration), hot fusion, and LENR (low energy nuclear reactions). They hope these can be deployed at scale in time to make a difference.
Who’s right? As scientists and economists hash it out, former Department of Energy official, physicist, and climate blogger Joe Romm cautions, “the reality of climate change and rapidly improving technology makes it both essential and indeed inevitable that the electric grid will be essentially carbon free by 2055. That’s the forest we mustn’t miss for the trees.”
We’re seeing thoughtful coverage and analyses in publications like the Washington Post, E&E News, EcoWatch, Greentech Media, Greenbiz, and Grist. Miraculously, most comments have been serious, respectful, and productive. Regrettably, Jacobson blogged that most of the critical scientists “have a history of advocacy, employment, research or consulting in nuclear power, fossil fuels or carbon capture.”
This debate may reach people who haven’t heard of the ambitious 100-percent goal or who see “replace fossil fuels with clean energy” as an unrealistic slogan. As leaders constructively explore choices, people will see both sides agree we need to get off fossil fuels — and that it’s achievable.
The climate numbers show why we need to do it. Before coal became a fuel, global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) was at 280 ppm (parts per million). In 2008, when we’d reached 380 ppm, Bill McKibben and others co-founded 350.org and fueled a movement with a goal understandable in every language. We’ve just passed 400 ppm and are still heading up.
In fact, a long-term safe, sustainable level may actually be 300 ppm. Returning to those levels means not just slowing greenhouse gas buildup, but actually stopping it and finding ways to reverse it. Can we aim for not merely less bad outcomes, but better lives everywhere?
There’s a “business case” for every human being to flourish without poisoning our air and water. By one estimate, achieving the 300 ppm goal would take only 1 percent of global GDP for 50 years. And it would create tens of millions of repair, conversion, and restoration jobs.
The how-much-renewable debate doesn’t yet reflect promising emerging pathways. Paul Hawken’s team at Project Drawdown showcases 100 mostly natural “Regenerative Solutions.” The Healthy Climate Alliance will soon go public with approaches to “Climate Restoration,” including CDR (carbon dioxide removal), to return to 300 ppm. And Elon Musk claims that 100 battery Gigafactories, like the one Tesla built in Nevada for $5 billion, could store renewable energy everywhere 24/7/365.
Putting a price on carbon would significantly improve the business model for 100 percent renewables. Despite powerful opposition forces, plans like the Citizens Climate Lobby’s Carbon Fee & Dividend and the Climate Leadership Council’s Carbon Tax and Dividend – supported by some Republican leaders and oil companies – are likely to be adopted in the coming years.
We have the technical, financial, and social means to leave fossil fuels behind — and we have the momentum. At some point, having built awareness and support, the United States will decide to go all-in. Until then, though we don’t yet know our exact route, can we agree on our destination?
The sooner we get off fossil fuels, the better off we’ll be. By aiming high we’ll be personally, morally, and socially responsible to ourselves and to future generations.