OUR CLIMATE IS AT A TURNING POINT – REASONS FOR HOPE

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24 june 2017

The death of King Coal hints we are at a climate turning point

Coal use is dying out and wind and solar energy are booming. This means the world is changing around you despite inaction by backward-looking politicians

Scientific American, June 24, 2017

TWO hundred years ago, the British economy stood on the brink of a transformation that changed the world. Powered by a new and increasingly cheap energy source – King Coal – the industrial revolution swept away the agrarian society of old and ushered in a new world order.

We now stand on the brink of a similar transformation. Last year, UK coal consumption was down at levels not seen since the early 1800s; in April, the power sector achieved a first by going a whole day without burning any coal. Around the world, coal is on its way out. With every passing year, we’re digging less out of the ground and retiring more coal-fired power stations. There is a growing consensus that the filthiest fossil fuel has had its day. Last week, BP’s chief economist declared a “decisive break from the past“.

At the same time, renewables, particularly wind and solar, are booming. In 2016, the proportion of the world’s electricity coming from these sources rose to 11.3 per cent. The cost of installing solar and wind capacity is plummeting. Even in countries where coal enjoys political support, the numbers are pointing in the same direction. Coal employs 160,000 people in the US; solar and wind employ 476,000 and counting.

These are all signs that the world is changing around you in ways you may not have realised, and that even the most backward-looking politicians are powerless to stop (see “How we’re living with climate change and can beat it“). They are also the best reason to believe that the number one downside of the industrial revolution, climate change, can still be kept in check.

It’s important not to get carried away. Demand for oil and gas is growing and most electricity still comes from fossil fuels. Aviation and shipping have no viable alternative to hydrocarbons. But the green shoots of an energy revolution aren’t just sprouting, they are growing vigorously.

The tides of history are hard to discern as they flow around you, but what we are witnessing may be as world-changing as the coal revolution of 200 years ago.

This article appeared in print under the headline “The king is dead, long live…”


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