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Why clean energy isn’t enough to tackle climate change

Illustration of a large oil barrel casting a shadow over a tiny wind turbine
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Forget renewable energy for a moment. To really fight climate change, the world needs to focus far more on cutting its use of oil, natural gas and coal.

The big picture: Like adding salad to your pasta doesn’t help you lose weight, adding cleaner energy to a world run on fossil fuels won’t cut greenhouse gas emissions. Yet that’s what we’re doing now.

Driving the news: This is the biggest upshot of a new climate-change simulator the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and think tank Climate Interactive will unveil Tuesday, and which I viewed ahead of time.

  • It underscores a concept well known to energy experts, which is that cutting emissions needs to be first about reducing the world’s use of fossil fuels, instead of merely ramping up cleaner forms of energy.
  • This concept is as out of reach as it is well known. Global energy demand keeps increasing, so wind and solar are being added on top of fossil fuels — just like you add salad on top of your pasta.

Reality check: To lose weight, you need to cut (at least some of) the pasta and replace it with something healthier (maybe a salad).

  • What’s needed to tackle climate change is to cut emissions of oil, natural gas and coal, and have cleaner energy sources replace them.
  • Climate change is far more complicated and challenging than your diet, but you get the idea!
“The climate doesn’t just need wind and solar. It needs us to not burn coal, oil, and natural gas.”
— Andrew Jones, co-founder, Climate Interactive

We'll have a full Axios-curated interactive for you to work with in Tuesday’s Generate when MIT and Climate Interactive unveils their work. Think of it as a Choose Your Own Adventure, climate and energy style. Sign up here for our newsletter.

By the numbers: Wind and solar power use is skyrocketing around the world, which is good news for renewable energy advocates, but it’s missing the point when it comes to climate change.

  • Renewable energy will make up nearly 50% of global electricity within the next 30 years, up from today’s 28%, according to recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
  • That data also finds that carbon dioxide emissions will keep rising over that same time period given growing overall energy demand.

Where it stands: While this idea isn’t new to readers of my column and Generate, it’s worth exploring here given that the surrounding political context has changed a lot over the past year.

  • Leading Democrats are pushing aggressive goals that aim to get off fossil fuels, but they don’t offer many details on how they plan to achieve that. (See: Green New Deal and a House Democratic bill introduced late last month, both which lack substantive policy details.)
  • House Republicans, meanwhile, are looking to introduce legislation aimed at countering the Green New Deal, but it’s likely those measures will focus mostly on clean-energy innovation, not cutting the use of fossil fuels.

“What’s politically accessible is incremental change that is woefully insufficient in the face of the challenge,” Jones said. “What’s needed is more fundamental change that doesn’t seem to be accessible at this point.”

But, but, but: It’s not just that politicians aren’t up to the task. It’s that they’re responding to the reality on the ground, which is that cheap and plentiful fossil fuels are essential to our current way of life — and changing that could have swift, negative consequences from the masses.

  • The yellow-vest protests in France and more recent ones in Ecuador show the political risks of increasing fossil-fuel costs, especially if it happens abruptly.
  • The fossil-fuel industry’s decades-long opposition to big policy has also been an essential impediment. That’s starting to lessen with many energy companies beginning to support pricing CO2 emissions.
  • If a Democrat wins the White House next year, that president will test the limits on the public’s appetite for big climate policy.

The forthcoming modeling shows that no single solution by itself significantly cuts global emissions, including technology capturing CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel emitting facilities, like coal and natural-gas plants.

  • Although many experts consider this type of equipment essential to tackling climate change given the world’s enduring reliance on fossil fuels, the modeling shows that cutting overall use of these fuels is paramount, irrespective of this technology.

Among the solutions included in the simulator, the one that goes the furthest to cut emissions is also among the least politically viable: a carbon price, which inevitably increases the cost of fossil fuels.

  • “You need to find a way to alleviate the pain of higher energy costs,” Jones said. “There’s no way to get around that.”

The bottom line: Because there’s no way around that, the world is opting instead to just not do it. That’s why actual solutions to climate change are further away today than they’ve ever been.