David P. Turner / May 12, 2022
The threat of global climate change points to the dire need for a renewable energy revolution in which energy from combustion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) is rapidly displaced by energy from renewable sources (wind, solar, geothermal, hydro). Research by engineers and economists attests to the feasibility of building a global energy infrastructure that runs on renewable energy. However, forward looking policies must be designed and strong political will must be generated.
In a heavily politicized environment such as Washington D.C., policies are much more likely to get implemented when they are supported for more than one reason. The underlying mechanism is that with powerful forces aligned for and against any given policy proposal, several constituencies ̶ each supporting a desired policy for a different reason ̶ must coalesce to overcome opposition.
Clearly, the strongest rationale for a global renewable energy revolution is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change. But here are six additional rationales that should motivate leaders and legislators to support renewable energy policies.
1. Geopolitical strategy. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has thrown a spotlight on the vulnerability of nations to energy blackmail. Domestic production of renewable energy reduces dependency on imported fossil fuels and gives a nation greater flexibility in foreign policy. Many countries in the European Union are now ramping up renewable energy production in the face of threatened cut-off of fossil fuels from Russia.
2. The cost of renewable energy is decreasing. Renewable energy is already cheaper than fossil fuel energy in some cases, and technological advances in generation, storage, and distribution will continue to drive down costs. Each time a component of the global fossil fuel infrastructure ages to the point of needing replacement, a decision must be made to continue burning fossil fuel or switch to renewables. From a purely economic perspective, the better decision may be to go with renewable energy.
3. The cost of fossil fuels is increasing. Currently, much of the environmental and social costs of fossil fuels are externalized, but as those costs begin to be covered by more stringent regulation and carbon taxes, the overall costs of fossil fuels will be pushed up.
4. Public health. Combustion of fossil fuels results in emissions of nitrogen compounds and hydrocarbons that participate in the formation of harmful ground-level ozone and particulates (Figure 1). A long history of research and monitoring by environmental agencies supports the conclusion that ground-level ozone is detrimental to human and crop health. The non-climate related economic benefits of reducing fossil fuel combustion (e.g. reduced sickness and death from air pollution) exceed the climate-related benefits in the early decades of greenhouse gas mitigation scenarios.
5. Nitrogen deposition. The nitrogen compounds associated with fossil fuel combustion eventually fall out of the atmosphere in precipitation or as dry deposition. This excess nitrogen is deposited to terrestrial, aquatic, and marine ecosystems and drives eutrophication and soil acidification.
6. Job creation. Building and maintaining an expansive renewable energy infrastructure will create on the order of seven times more jobs than will be lost from the fossil fuel and nuclear industries as they recede. The issue of job creation will become increasingly important in the coming decades as computer-driven artificial intelligence displaces human beings.
The multiple rationales noted here for policies that support a renewable energy expansion will hopefully, in aggregate, move the needle away from further investments in the fossil fuel infrastructure. Policies that stimulate renewable energy technology include subsidies on electric vehicles and residential solar power installation, whereas carbon taxes and regulation of drilling rights on public land can serve to limit fossil fuel development.
Of immediate concern is that a desire to reduce consumption of Russian fossil fuels will be used as a justification for increasing fossil fuel production in the U.S. and elsewhere. Considering the long turnover time of fossil fuel infrastructure (e.g. 50 years for a coal burning power plant) and the ample opportunities for expanding renewable energy, great caution should be taken with investments that prolong the era of fossil fuels.