As coal use fades, renewables take center stage

Weeks away from the UN climate change summit in Paris, major economies around the world are looking to cut pollution and invest in clean energy.  

Nati Harnik
An ornamental windmill spins in front of wind turbines near Steele City, Neb., earlier this month. Renewable energy advocates say they're encouraged by a new push to expand wind energy in Nebraska, which lags many of its neighboring states in tapping the renewable resource.

As 2016 approaches, renewable energy is steadily emerging as a major player in the energy market. Meanwhile, coal is seeing a drastic fall in use around the world.

Renewables represent the world’s second largest electricity source, according to the International Energy Agency. By 2030, the agency says, it very well might replace the most polluting fossil fuel – coal.

Greenpeace confirmed this trend in a report Monday that found that global use of coal fell by 2.3 percent from 2014 to 2015. In the United States, the decline is all the more extreme: Over the last decade, electricity from coal has fallen from 50 percent domestically to 36 percent.

“These trends show that the so-called global coal boom in the first decade of the 21st century was a mirage,” Lauri Myllyvirta, Greenpeace’s coal and energy campaigner, told The Washington Post with Bloomberg.

“Coal is in terminal decline,” she added, “and those countries investing in coal for export markets are making reckless decisions.”

She is referring primarily to India and some Southeast Asian countries. In the former, production increased by 7 percent in the first nine months of 2015 and the upward trend is projected to continue.

“India is moving to the center stage of energy,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol told the Guardian. “The choices India makes will be important for all of us, and therefore there is a need for supporting India’s push for clean and efficient technologies.”

But India recently vowed to reduce carbon emissions by remarkable margins in the next 15 years. The country’s environment minister announced in October that emissions will be cut by up to 35 percent of 2003 levels. This shift in priority will certainly affect coal’s salience in the coming years for India.

As the United Nations climate change summit in Paris draws near, India isn’t the only major economy that has promised concerted efforts to promote cleaner energy. China has pledged to halt its growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and in the United States, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan is set not only to curb pollution, but also to invest in renewable energy technologies.

Though oil and natural gas aren’t going anywhere in the near future, they will face growing competition from solar, wind, hydropower, and biofue energies. 

As The Christian Science Monitor reported Tuesday, non-fossil fuels will account for 25 percent of the world’s total demand for energy by 2040.

Renewable energies, Birol said, are no longer a niche market. Currently, 60 percent of all new energy investment goes to the renewables.

The demand for solar power, for instance, is at an all-time high. Solar panels have gotten cheaper by 95 percent since 2008, and many developing countries are now opting for this clean and affordable alternative, which helps alleviate poverty by lowering energy bills.

In the US, solar and wind power production has been rising, quietly but exponentially. Even without government subsidies, wind is now the cheapest American source of electricity.

While demand for oil and natural gas will also continue to grow, carbon emissions are feasibly expected to stagnate and decline.

"Historically, energy-related CO2 emissions have moved in lockstep with economic growth,” Doug Vine, senior energy fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, told the Monitor.

“But for the first time last year, global carbon dioxide emissions leveled off while the world economy grew.”

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