Renewable Energy Can Phase Out Fossil Fuels in 40 Years

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Last week, during his State of the Union address, President Obama announced that our generation’s Sputnik moment is here, and it is clean energy. Calling on Americans to invest in the future, he cited clean energy as his prime example of how America must reinvent itself to stay competitive in the global economy. As part of this declaration, Obama challenged the country to join him in a new goal—by 2035, generate 80% of America’s electricity from “clean energy sources.”

The reasons for transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy are numerous—job creation, global competitiveness, reduced childhood asthma, ending our dependence on oil, halting the flow of oil money to hostile regimes.  What has gotten lost in the mix recently is safeguarding the health of our planet – species, ecosystems and natural resources – from the impacts of climate change. The buildup of carbon pollution from fossil fuels is the key driver for climate change which is already threatening the integrity of ecosystems around the world.

From the melting sea-ice habitats of polar bears and walruses to warmer sea waters that destroy the coral habitats of fish, we are already seeing the fingerprints of climate change everywhere. Scientists estimate that as warming reaches 2 to 3 °C (3.6 to 5.4 °F) 20-30 percent of plant and animal species face a higher risk of extinction. But we are currently on track to exceed even this level of warming. The National Academies project that global temperatures could increase as much as 6.4 °C (11.5 °F) over the 21st century. Such an increase would pose even greater risks to the natural systems that people and animals rely on for food, water and prosperity.

Fortunately we do not have to accept this kind of future for ourselves or our children. A new report released today by World Wildlife Fund shows that we have the capacity – using existing technology – to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels in less than 4 decades. We can do this with truly clean energy in a way that supplies all of our energy needs, not just electricity.  

In collaboration with energy consultants at Ecofys, WWF developed The Energy Report which outlines a pathway to power the world entirely by renewable energy by the middle of this century—wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, ocean and biomass alone without natural gas, nuclear or any form of coal.  Some say the President’s more modest goal is impossible to reach. Our report shows the opposite: a much more complete clean energy future is in fact achievable.  


Overall Composition of Global Energy Supply in 2050

WWF & Ecofys' path to a renewable energy future

Source: The Energy Report


The Energy Report is one of the most ambitious, science-based examinations yet of a clean energy future on a global scale. It covers all energy needs and the challenge of providing reliable and safe energy to all. Importantly, it uses deliberately conservative assumptions: fossil fuel price increases of no more than two per cent annually, deployment of technologies available today and continuous sustainable renewable energy expansion that ensures protection for ecosystems and species.  It is an ambitious but attainable vision that outlines the key changes required to achieve a fully clean energy future and avoid catastrophic climate change.

President Obama is right, our Sputnik moment is here – but this time we already have the technology. To make this renewable energy future a reality what we need most is political leadership to confront this challenge and overcome the obstacles that we’ll face along the way. The president should start by offering a clear blueprint for how to reach the goal of producing 80% of our electricity from truly clean sources by 2035.

This plan should harness the full resources of the federal government to reduce our energy consumption, make our energy and transport infrastructure more efficient, and eliminate any subsidies for polluting fossil fuels. This strategy also should describe how the United States will meet our very modest commitment (reiterated last December in Mexico) to join the world in fighting climate change by reducing our carbon emissions 17% by 2020. The rest of the world is moving forward on clean energy and climate change, it’s time we join them.

Every year the evidence of climate disruption grows stronger, while the competition among countries to become the global leader in clean energy solutions grows fiercer. To meet this challenge, America needs to start moving forward today, advancing the Apollo projects of our generation and heading off one of the greatest threats to humans and nature that the world has ever seen.  We have the technology and the vision, it’s now up to all of us, both in Washington and around the country, to choose a safer future.    


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