It’s easy to be pessimistic about efforts to slow the greenhouse gas emissions known to be driving climate change, especially as each year seems to become the hottest on record. A new school of thought is pushing for optimism as a strategy in our efforts to turn the situation around. Progress needs to move more quickly, these positive thinkers agree. However, they counter, things are at least beginning to move in the right direction.
There are numerous reasons for seeing the climate-change glass as half-empty. The most recent international climate talks in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, failed to reach a consensus on phasing out fossil fuels. The war in Ukraine is actually leading to an uptick in European coal use as governments struggle to keep lights on and factories producing in the face of limited natural gas supplies.
Global carbon and methane emissions are continuing to rise, making the goal of limiting global average temperatures to less than 2°C (3.6°F) below pre-industrial levels—much less the 1.5°C increase climatologists say we should be aiming for—that much more difficult to achieve.
While granting that all this bad news is true, optimists point to several data points they see as offering hope for climate change progress, starting with the accelerating growth in renewable energy. Despite the rebound in coal use last year, renewable energy sources and nuclear power provided a higher share of global electricity than that high-polluting fuel in 2021, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). And renewables on their own reached all-time high levels of output that year.
Additionally, the IEA said in its Renewables 2022 report released in December that solar and wind resources are growing faster than its own analysts projected just a year ago, thanks to energy security fears raised by the Russia-Ukraine war. Global renewable power capacity now is expected to grow by 2,400 gigawatts between 2022 and 2027, an amount equal to China’s entire power capacity today.
This estimate is 30% higher than IEA’s 2021 forecast, and report writers say it highlights how quickly national governments are pivoting toward renewables. The organization anticipates renewables to make up more than 90% of added global capacity over the next five years, surpassing coal as the world’s largest generating resource by early 2025.
“The world is set to add as much renewable power in the next five years as it did in the previous 20 years,” said Fatih Birol, IEA’s executive director, in a statement accompanying the report’s release. “This is a clear example of how the current energy crisis can be a historic turning point towards a cleaner and more secure energy system.”
Birol also noted that the uptick in global emissions seen in 2021 could have been three times larger had nations not moved as heavily as they did toward renewables following Russia’s Ukraine invasion. The move toward cleaner energy sources is structural, not temporary.
“Those changes are set to accelerate thanks to the major clean energy policy plans that have advanced around the world in recent months,” he said.
Importantly, given the scale of its demand, China is expected to account for almost half of new global renewable capacity additions during this five-year period. The United States and India, the world’s other two largest greenhouse gas emitters, also are implementing policies and market reforms more quickly than previously planned. Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act offers a strong example in this regard, providing hundreds of billions of dollars in incentives for renewable energy developers, along with support to push related innovations in energy storage and electric vehicles.
Marcy Franck, senior communications strategist with the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has even started a monthly newsletter focused on highlighting emission-reduction progress. Dubbed “The Climate Optimist,” each issue tries to counter the feeling of being overwhelmed and powerless in the face of climate challenges with examples where progress is being made.
“Being optimistic and having hope, I think, is a practice where you can recenter, focus on the things that are going right, and focus on the solutions that are already taking hold,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s human nature to focus on the problem. But it feels so much better to focus on the solution.”
Other climate activists are speaking out on the value of optimism on its own—not as a result of accomplishments so far, but as a necessary ingredient for faster emissions reductions moving forward. A group called Global Optimism, founded by leaders behind the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate where nations first committed to specific emission-reduction targets, promotes what it calls “stubborn optimism.” As founding partner Christiana Figueres puts it, the group sees the climate crisis as daunting yet conquerable.
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