Some world leaders, especially in developing countries like India, have long said it’s hard to reduce the emissions that are warming the planet because they need to use relatively inexpensive — but highly carbon-intensive — fuels like coal to keep energy affordable. That argument is losing its salience as the cost of renewable energy sources like wind and solar continues to fall.
Last year, for the first time, renewables accounted for a majority of new electricity-generating capacity added around the world, according to a recent United Nations report. More than half the $286 billion invested in wind, solar and other renewables occurred in emerging markets like China, India and Brazil — also for the first time. Excluding large hydroelectric plants, 10.3 percent of all electricity generated globally in 2015 came from renewables, roughly double the amount in 2007, according to the report.
The average global cost of generating electricity from solar panels fell 61 percent between 2009 and 2015 and 14 percent for land-based wind turbines. In sunny parts of the world like India and Dubai, developers of solar farms have recently offered to sell electricity for less than half the global average price. In November, the accounting firm KPMG predicted that by 2020 solar energy in India could be 10 percent cheaper than electricity generated by burning coal.
These are all hopeful signs. They suggest that reductions in carbon emissions can be achieved more quickly and more cheaply than widely believed. And they provide hope that nations will be able to achieve the ambitious goals they set for themselves at last December’s climate summit meeting in Paris — to keep warming below the threshold beyond which the world will be locked into a future of devastating consequences, including rising sea levels, severe droughts and flooding, widespread food and water shortages and more destructive storms.
Replacing coal-fired plants or avoiding new ones will have major health benefits as well, especially in heavily polluted cities in China and India where ground-level pollutants like soot and smog make the simple act of breathing a major undertaking. Those benefits will be even greater as gasoline-powered cars are replaced with electric vehicles that draw power from wind and solar farms.
Formidable obstacles to the cleaner energy future envisioned in Paris remain. One is technological: Batteries capable of storing energy for use when the sun is not shining and the wind isn’t blowing are still quite expensive, though their costs are falling. Another is financial: Despite increased private investment in renewables, the United States and other industrialized countries have not lived up to their pledge at the Copenhagen conference in 2009 to provide $100 billion a year to underwrite climate projects in poorer countries. Negotiators in Paris gave themselves until 2025 to come up with a new financing goal.
A third obstacle is political. It’s clear that imposing a price on fossil fuels would encourage investment in cleaner fuels. A carbon tax has cut emissions in British Columbia; India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has proposed doubling a tax on coal; China has promised a national emissions trading system. But carbon taxes remain a nonstarter in the United States.
The falling cost of renewables is a clear plus. The prospect of keeping energy affordable while saving the planet should inspire leaders to bolder action.