Renewable energy can't be stopped (but delay still hurts)

solar farm
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Brookhaven National Laboratory

The low carbon future is coming. The pace at which it arrives, however, matters an awful lot.

The other day, I welcomed the fact that Lloyds of London, the world's oldest insurance market, would stop investing in coal. Not long after, however, I got an email from solar pioneer (and former oil geologist) Jeremy Leggett, who provided some sobering context.

Jeremy, it turns out, had presented a report to Lloyds of London back in 1993 warning of the consequences of delay, and suggesting they begin moving all fossil fuel-related investments to solar, renewables and energy efficiency instead. This lead Jeremy to pose the following question:

"By delaying a quarter of a century enacting what is surely such an obvious self-protection measure, how much damage has Lloyd's done to investors who have placed their trust in them, in the interim, when it comes to weather-related disasters?"

I've been thinking a lot about this email since then. While I tend to celebrate each new move towards more renewables, smarter cities, etc. as a sign that a low carbon future is now inevitable, it is important for us "glass half full" types to remember that how fast we get there is increasingly critical.

Lloyd's post on President Trump's new solar tariffs is a classic case in point. On the one hand, it will slow progress and cost thousands of jobs. On the other, even industry insiders are saying that another 1.5 years of price cuts and the effects of the tariffs will be largely wiped out.

So what's the problem?

The sad fact is that 1.5 years is an awful long time if we have any hope of keeping climate change to 1.5 degrees. And in that struggle, a pound of carbon saved now is worth an awful lot more than a pound of carbon saved 20, 10 or even 2 years from now. So we need to fight what Alex Steffen often refers to as "predatory delay" wherever it rears its head. Even if the naysayers can't derail the march of renewables, they can slow us down enough to make our future even more challenging than it already is.

I do, however, have one more "silver lining" argument to make on the significance of all this. While the delay tactics of Big Energy and their allies are indeed doing damage, the fact that that damage may be limited may actually prove to be a final tipping point for much more ambitious action. Over at Politico, Eric Wolff writes a powerful piece entitled Trump's failing war on green power, in which he points out that the much promised renaissance of coal has failed to materialize, and that many states, cities and corporations are redoubling their efforts in terms of renewables as a direct rebuke of the president's policies.

If—and it is indeed an if—we get through the most openly anti-environment administration in recent history and renewables do keep marching, then I would imagine there will be an even larger number of energy investors who start thinking about where the future lies.

Lloyd concluded his piece on the tariffs by saying that the campaign to kill solar and promote fossil fuels was "just getting started".

And he's right.

The good news is, so are we.

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