IN June 1992, world leaders, including President George Bush, agreed to combat climate change at the Earth Summit meeting in Rio de Janeiro. This week, at “Rio+20,” leaders, experts and activists will once more gather to ponder the fate of the planet.
Optimism will be in short supply. Since the first conference, global carbon emissions have increased by some 50 percent — an outcome that those who were present 20 years ago would surely have seen as disastrous. And we are continuing this sorry trend: As the Arctic becomes ice-free, we can expect that it will be drilled for oil.
But below most radars, and despite the alarming news, the seeds of an energy revolution are being sown. Given some luck and the right policies, that revolution could yet help us resolve the climate crisis.
Solar and wind energy are developing faster than predicted — indeed, faster than most people realize. Europe is showing the way. Denmark gets about 20 percent of its electricity from wind. On a nice day, Germany, which no one thinks of as a sunny place, gets from the sun over 40 percent of the electricity it uses.
Worldwide, solar and wind capacity now tops 300 gigawatts, three times as much as the total capacity in Britain, or roughly as much electricity as 50 nuclear reactors, nearly half the number now operating in the United States. Most of this renewable capacity has been installed in just the last five years. In fact, over that period, solar capacity has been growing by over 50 percent a year, wind by 25 percent.
As these markets grow, costs are plunging. The cost of photovoltaic cells has fallen by two-thirds in three years. Today, solar energy costs around 15 cents a kilowatt-hour in the United States. In some regions, like Southern California, the cost of solar power is nearly on par with what consumers pay for electricity now.
To be sure, this sunny picture does not diminish the magnitude of the challenge. In absolute terms, fossil fuels are growing faster than renewables, and global greenhouse gas emissions are still rising. In addition, governments continue to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.
It won’t be easy for the world to kick its addiction to fossil fuels, but it is doable. First and foremost, we need to put a price or cap on carbon emissions. Every ton of coal, every barrel of oil does more in socialized damage to economies, health and ecosystems than it adds in value to overall economic output. That cost in simple fairness ought to be reflected in the price of the fuels themselves. Otherwise, the oil and coal and power companies are simply leaving the tab for adverse consequences — from bad health to coastal flooding — to be picked up by everyone else.