May 27, 2024

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Science It Works

We Don’t Need Science Fiction to Avert Climate Catastrophe

Europeans gawked at the bizarre comments of US climate envoy John Kerry, who claimed last month that the transition to a climate-neutral world hinges upon “technologies we don’t yet have” and that developing them could take decades. Kerry’s statements were outlandish—and undermine efforts to curb global warming.

In Europe, the clean-energy transition is gearing up, and the focus here and elsewhere must be on building what works as quickly as possible. The European Union is already shifting to energy systems devoid of oil and coal, and by 2050, at the latest, of natural gas too. The lifeblood of this epic undertaking is the simplest, cheapest of all clean-energy sources: solar and wind, which will produce anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of Europe’s electricity in the next two to three decades—that is, if the EU is to hit its targets of cutting emissions by 55 percent from the 1990 level by 2030 and respect the 1.5–2°C threshold of the Paris Agreement. Austria, Germany, Denmark, and Portugal are demonstrating that it is not only possible to shift to regionally networked, carbon-neutral power supplies without science-fiction wonders or nuclear power but also that these sources are cheaper, cleaner, and safer.

In Europe, almost all of the major transition scenarios from leading think tanks show that Europe can reach net zero, or very close to it, with existing tech and policies—most critically, renewables, smart grids and other digital components, demand management, advanced storage, standby reserve gas capacity, and, of course, energy efficiency everywhere and at warp speed.

Renewables-produced hydrogen, known as green hydrogen, critical for storing and transporting clean power, is the one element that isn’t quite cost-ready, but the price is dropping as the number of projects rises, and there’s little reason to doubt that the same effects that swept microchips, solar panels, and offshore wind won’t swiftly push down the cost curve for hydrogen too. Most of the necessary clean-energy technology is so widespread and affordable that individuals, businesses, communities, and cities are already using it themselves—through solar self-consumption, peer-to-peer energy trading, e-car sharing, small wind and solar parks, building retrofitting, and much more.

Global scenarios, such as the new International Energy Agency’s road map for the global energy sector, show much the same: We have to scramble over the next decade, innovating as we move forward, but we can’t waste time on Hail Mary passes such as carbon capture and sequestration and new nuclear technology. And we certainly shouldn’t continue to build more gas pipelines, conventional nuclear stations, or waste-to-energy plants.