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It’s time to put fossil fuels in the rearview mirror

This week, climate leaders and activists from across the globe will converge in New York for the annual Climate Week activities on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting. They do so at an important moment in the lead-up to the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Dubai (COP28), where nations are set to review their progress toward the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

For anyone who doesn’t feel like waiting that long, nature provided an unscheduled interim report this summer, in the form of raging wildfires in Canada and Maui, unprecedented ocean temperatures in Florida and the hottest month on record in 120,000 years. And science warns that the worst is still on the horizon unless humanity acts decisively to curb carbon pollution.

What does that mean for us in the U.S.?

Fossil-fueled power plants are responsible for some 40 percent of all carbon dioxide pollution. By comparison, in 2022, renewable energy from sources like wind and solar prevented 600 million tons of carbon emissions. Our path is clear: We need to quickly pivot and make renewable energy the mainstay, not the alternative. And as the second-largest annual emitter after China, and historically the largest cumulative contributor, the U.S. can and must lead the way.  

But first, we need to win hearts and minds. Today, a mere 31 percent of U.S. adults advocate for completely transitioning away from fossil fuels. The younger generation is more supportive, with 42 percent in favor of decarbonization. But that means a solid majority still envisions a future where fossil fuels coexist with renewables. To sway them, our energy transition narrative must highlight the broader benefits: job opportunities, health improvements and energy security.

Fortunately, when it comes to economic benefits, proponents of renewable energy have a powerful story to share.

Solar and wind energy costs have dramatically decreased over the past decade, making them both affordable and scalable. What’s more, research shows that every dollar channeled into renewables yields three times the job opportunities compared to the fossil fuel sector. Last year’s passage of the critical Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has already ushered in $278 billion of new investments in renewable energy, nearly doubling manufacturing of electric vehicles and clean energy components and generating more than 170,000 new jobs

Global renewable capacity is growing, to be sure, but not nearly fast enough. The U.S. must accelerate renewable energy deployment by at least two to three times to realize our decarbonization aspirations. And plenty of roadblocks remain, from localized resistance stemming from misconceptions about renewables to a patchwork of disparate state permitting processes and lack of a unified power grid. 

Take our fragmented power grid for example. When the wind doesn’t blow in Texas, the sun might be shining in Arizona. By creating interconnected regional grids, we can ensure that renewable energy is consistently distributed across the country. Such an approach also provides an economic buffer against regional energy price fluctuations, creating a more stable and resilient energy system.

To reap the most from all this clean energy now available on the grid, it’s essential for the U.S. to also embrace electrification in transportation, household appliances and other areas. So far uptake has been slow, with electric vehicles accounting for a meager 5 percent of U.S. car sales in 2022. But there’s reason to hope that will soon change.

The IRA has allocated $369 billion for clean energy and climate action programs that will, among other things, accelerate the development of new battery plants and provide incentives for electric vehicles, including $7,500 in federal tax credits and often thousands more in state credits. The law also provides $2,000 federal tax credits for homeowners to replace gas furnaces with energy-efficient heat pumps, as well as incentives for the adoption of electric water heaters, cooktops and more. Thanks to these provisions, it’s becoming easier than ever for Americans to take steps toward electrification on every level.

Investments in pioneering clean fuel technologies, such as biofuels and hydrogen, can complement these efforts and close the remaining gaps in our energy landscape. When it comes to energy efficiency, it’s not just about the grand gestures; sometimes, small, collective actions carry significant weight. The widespread adoption of LED bulbs is a testament to this, illuminating how simple changes can redefine norms. Moreover, by revisiting and revamping our household infrastructures and embracing efficient technologies, Americans can save on utility bills while also taking a decisive step toward a sustainable future.

Finally, we need to look beyond the low-hanging fruit for emissions cuts and seek solutions in often overlooked sources of carbon pollution, such as thermal energy. Combustion of fossil fuels by industry in the manufacturing processes is responsible for more than 12 percent of U.S. emissions — more than the entire U.S. agricultural sector. Here we clearly see the power of collaboration: the Renewable Thermal Collaborative (RTC), comprised of companies, institutions and governments committed to scaling up solutions for renewable thermal energy, has conducted research that shows currently available renewable thermal technologies can significantly reduce emissions, especially in industries reliant on low-temperature processes.    

The sooner more companies recognize the precompetitive nature of this crisis and pool their resources and know-how just as RTC has, the faster Americans can put fossil fuels in their rearview mirror. We know where we need to go. We have the means to get there. Now we need to listen to the science, come together and run — not walk — to the finish line. 

Marcene Mitchell is senior vice president of climate change at the World Wildlife Fund.

Tags Biofuels carbon emissions Climate change COP28 Fossil fuels Inflation Reduction Act LED bulbs Paris agreement Renewable energy Solar energy United Nations General Assembly Wind power