Blank: Solving climate change requires more than just solar panels

We need to rapidly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, but the solution is more complicated than just building more renewables.

by Lew Blank

In the past, whenever I thought about solving climate change, I envisioned a world where we would be able to become fully carbon neutral solely through the use of renewable energy, a futuristic green paradise where we’d eliminate all of our CO2 emissions simply by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. We wouldn’t need to radically change our consumption patterns or reduce our energy use in any economic sectors, so long as our global economy was powered by renewable energy, not fossil fuels.

But after looking further into how deeply fossil fuels are ingrained in our modern economy, I’ve realized that this assumption is scientifically inaccurate. While renewable energy has enormous potential and we should be taking bold, ambitious steps to build solar panels and wind farms across the U.S., it should not be treated as the be-all and end-all solution to climate change.

The reason lies in this simple fact: renewable energy sources like solar panels, wind farms and hydroelectric plants are only reliable at producing electricity, but only 28 percent of the U.S.’ emissions stem directly from electric generation. 

The other 72 percent of emissions come from sources like transportation, industry, buildings and agriculture, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. While some of these emissions are indeed tied to electricity, many others stem from the burning of fossil fuels like oil, natural gas and coal, as well as chemical processes that have little to do with electricity.

This poses a serious problem: how will we be able to use renewable electricity to power sectors of the economy whose emissions stem from non-electric processes?

While some of these non-electric processes such as cars indeed have electric alternatives that may become cost-effective in the coming years, other sectors including global trade, building-related emissions and land use-related emissions will be significantly more difficult to convert to electric inputs.

Despite major technological improvements, converting these machines to electric alternatives is extremely difficult technologically. Airbus, for instance, has produced an electric plane that seats two people and travels at a mere 136 miles per hour, a far cry from the company’s jet fuel-powered A380s, which hold 853 passengers and can travel at more than 600 miles per hour. And while China has developed an all-electric cargo ship, it can only traverse 50 miles on a single charge.

While there’s some potential for improvement here, it’s unlikely that we’ll have electric airplanes, electric cargo ships, electric freight trains and electric semi trucks transporting goods around the world at an affordable rate in the coming decades.

The problem is equally complicated when it comes to buildings. The process of heating and cooling buildings with natural gas is steeped in greenhouse gas emissions, but replacing these services with electric alternatives can more than double costs, according to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. And when it comes to constructing buildings with steel and cement — two of the most commonly-used materials in modern infrastructure — it would be extremely challenging to use renewable electricity as a substitute for the oil-intensive kilns and furnaces necessary to produce these materials, which typically create temperatures of nearly 3000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Even more dauntingly, using renewable energy to curtail emissions becomes downright impossible when it comes to sources of emissions like animal agriculture, rice paddies, landfills, water treatment and deforestation. Each of these processes creates massive amounts of emissions, but none of them can possibly be solved by using renewables, simply because their emissions don’t stem directly from energy use. 

The bottom line is this: renewable energy is essential to the fight against climate change. But due to the fact that the majority of our emissions stem from non-electric processes, and converting these processes to electricity can be very expensive if not downright impossible, we shouldn’t be convinced that renewables represent 100 percent of the solution to climate change.

Whenever a company, organization, government or university promises to run solely on “renewable energy,” we as citizens need to ask some important questions. What will be done about non-electric sources of emissions? Will heating and cooling be made electric? Will the shipping of goods be powered by electric vehicles? Will all building renovations be made without the use of cement or steel? Will alternatives to meat be pursued?

My point is not to diminish the power of renewable energy. In fact, I believe it’s the single most impactful solution on the table when it comes to saving our planet from climate change. 

The takeaway is simply that treating renewable energy as a be-all and end-all solution can cause us to overlook important aspects of solving climate change that go beyond merely building more renewables. Only with a multifaceted approach to addressing climate change that includes changing our patterns of consumption can we truly solve the problem in a comprehensive, holistic way.