The renewable energy revolution is happening faster than you think

Both China and the US, the world's top carbon emitters, are racing ahead with solar panels and wind turbines. It is even looking like we may soon see the beginning of the end for fossil fuels.

Heatwaves on land and at sea. Melting ice. Wildfires. This shocking year of weather extremes has brought home the reality of climate change, but it is also building the political momentum to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “The upside is a lot of people are going, ‘Holy mackerel, what is going on here?’ ” says Jennifer Francis at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts.

That sense of urgency is reflected in the unprecedented scale and speed of decarbonisation in many countries across the world. This year is expected to see by far the largest ever addition of wind and solar energy capacity globally, with 440 gigawatts expected to be added in 2023, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Throw in the rising adoption of electric vehicles (EVs), which could account for as much as 18 per cent of all new cars sold this year, and we could be on course for global fossil fuel emissions to peak by 2025, according to Rystad Energy, a Norwegian research firm. In fact, emissions from the global power sector may already have crested, according to UK clean energy research company Ember.

Much of this speed-up is down to new climate policies in the world’s biggest-emitting countries. China, the global leader in emissions, is building wind and solar (as well as some new nuclear and hydropower) at an almost ludicrously rapid pace to meet its targets of peaking emissions by 2030 and net-zero by 2060, meaning any remaining emissions are offset. More than half of all new renewables built in 2023 are expected to be in the country. In June, for the first time, fossil fuels made up less than half of China’s power capacity.

Electric vehicle charging stations in California
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

EV uptake is also happening fast in China, with the country accounting for 60 per cent of all EVs on roads today. Some EVs in China are now cheaper than comparable fossil fuel-powered cars.

China’s expansion of its coal power plant fleet in the name of energy security has complicated the picture, but this coal boom may only be a temporary surge until expanded clean sources paired with battery storage and a modernised grid can take over. “As long as we can deal with the dirty side of the picture, the cleaner side will get where we need to be,” says Li Shuo at Greenpeace East Asia.

Meanwhile, after decades of dithering, the world’s second largest emitter, the US, has a coherent and well-funded climate policy in the Inflation Reduction Act. Renewable energy is expected to generate more than a quarter of US energy by 2024, according to the US Energy Information Administration. EVs and electric heat pumps are also selling at record levels. Modelling shows this puts the US on track to more than halve its emissions by 2035, though this is still behind the country’s target of halving emissions by 2030, and the path to reach net zero by 2050 is even more precipitous.

The European Union – the fourth largest emitter after India, where emissions are expected to rise beyond 2030 – is spending hundreds of billions of euros to slash emissions. The EU’s transition has also been accelerated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the bloc builds renewables and improves energy efficiency to secure energy independence. According to the IEA, forecasts for newly built wind and solar in the EU this year increased by 40 per cent after the invasion. The EU has also said it will push for a global agreement to phase out fossil fuels well before 2050 at the upcoming COP28 climate summit in the United Arab Emirates.

All of this means that global emissions from fossil fuels may soon begin their decline. “It’s very unlikely that we’re going to pass this decade without reaching the peak of fossil fuel emissions,” says Marina Domingues at Rystad.

Of course, there are still substantial non-fossil sources of emissions to deal with, such as from agriculture and deforestation. And some ways we use fossil fuels, such as in aviation and heavy industry, are more difficult to replace with clean sources of energy. But fossil fuels make up the lion’s share of global emissions and seeing them peak would be an important milestone.

The way to net zero from there remains a long and uncertain one, but countries and researchers all over the world are making headway on the many policies and technologies needed to fully decarbonise, from doing more to protect carbon-rich ecosystems to nascent efforts to remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and put it back underground. This year is already a record one for climate change, but perhaps it may also become a record year for doing something about it.

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