Global clean energy surges as coal declines

Eco-future? Global coal use appears to have peaked, and some think oil could soon decline too.

Can we really stop climate change? Our focus may be on bad news but good things are happening and in many parts of the world solar power is getting progressively cheaper and more effective.

There is little doubt that man-made global warming is happening, and happening fast. In total, 16 of the last 17 years have been the hottest on record. Sea levels are rising at the fastest rate for thousands of years, with cities like Shanghai and Miami at risk of disappearing underwater. Meanwhile, Earth’s oceans are becoming ever-more acidic — turning once vibrant coral reefs into desolate wastelands.

Put all these facts together and the quest to bring climate change under control can feel doomed. But recently there have been breakthroughs which just might bring hope.

They centre on how we produce energy. Greenhouse gases come from burning fossil fuels — whether for generating electricity or powering cars and planes. The most polluting fossil fuel is coal.

But coal is in decline. In 2016 the UK generated more electricity from wind than coal for the first time ever. And last year it produced less carbon dioxide emissions than it did in 1894 (when Queen Victoria was on the throne and people still travelled in horse and carts).

Other countries are following suit. An alliance of 20 nations has promised to end coal use completely by 2030. Sweden is even aiming to give up all fossil fuels by 2045.

This reversal could soon hit oil too. Recently, trillions of dollars of investment has been pulled out of fossil fuel businesses, with oil companies hit hard. Some think the world will reach “peak oil” by 2025, at which point humanity’s demand for the black stuff will decrease — just as with coal now.

The reason? Electric cars and renewable energy, as wind and solar power are getting cheaper and more effective. China recently built an enormous grid of solar panels in the shape of a giant panda — it is so big it can be seen from space (and also produces as much energy as burning a million tonnes of coal).

It is hoped that one day this clean energy will power fleets of electric vehicles. And based on how quickly cars overtook the horse and carriage, some researchers think most of us will be driving electric cars by 2040.

But can we really stop global warming?

Going Green

We have passed the point of no return, some argue. Even if we stop pumping out all greenhouse gases right now, the world would continue warming up. And despite some countries cutting down on fossil fuels, global carbon emissions still increased last year. It does not look good.

There is much we can do, others say. Scientists are giving us the tools; we need politicians to implement the policies — even if that means going against fossil fuel companies. And if climate change cannot be stopped, we can still limit it to manageable levels, thus avoiding its worst consequences such as devastating flooding.

You Decide

  1. How worried are you about global warming?
  2. Is climate change the most important issue of our time?

Activities

  1. In pairs or small groups list all the ways in which individuals can help fight climate change. Once you have a good list, rank your ideas in order of how effective these measures are. Which action do you think is the most effective? Would it be possible for everyone in class to do it?
  2. Do some research into how climate change works — use the resources in Become An Expert to help you. Once you have a good idea of the science draw a diagram that demonstrates how global warming happens. Try to make it as clear and informative as possible.

Some People Say...

“Global warming is not a conqueror to kneel before — but a challenge to rise to.”

Joe Lieberman

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
NASA claims that the average surface temperature of the planet has increased by 1.1ºC since the late 19th century, with most of this warming taking place in the last 35 years. According to the Paris climate agreement, world nations have committed to keeping the rise of average global temperatures to “well below” 2ºC.
What do we not know?
We do not know if this target will be achieved, and predictions vary significantly. A University of Washington study claims there is a 90% chance that temperatures will rise between 2ºC and 4.9ºC. On the other hand, Professor Myles Allen of Oxford University claims there is a 66% chance that warming will be kept below 1.5ºC.

Word Watch

Record
According to NASA.
Fastest
According to researchers at Rutgers University, sea levels rose by 5.5 inches between 1900 and 2000. This has been linked to melting ice and seawater expanding as it warms.
Risk
According to estimates by Climate Central.
Acidic
NASA argues that since the Industrial Revolution, the surface of ocean waters has become 30% more acidic.
Ever
Analysis by Carbon Brief shows that 9.2% of UK power was generated from coal, compared to 11.5% from wind.
1894
According to Carbon Brief.
Trillions
Known as “divestment”, this is when organisations decide to withdraw money previously invested in certain businesses, possibly for ethical reasons. So far around $6 trillion dollars have been divested from fossil fuel companies. The Catholic Church is one notable organisation to divest from fossil fuels.
Researchers
From the International Monetary Fund and Georgetown University.
Continue warming up
For more on this argument see Richard B. Rood’s article in Become An Expert.

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