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The road to carbon neutrality

An accelerated evolution of clean energy

Following the agreements and goals set out by the Paris Climate Change Accord signed into action in November by China, the United States, the European Union, among others, the race to transition energy production and consumption from unclean energy, like coal and petroleum, to clean sources, such as wind and solar, has begun. What started as a race to lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the accelerating rate of human-caused climate change, is now becoming a race for dominating the fastest growing energy market in the world.

Investors are strengthening clean energy by investing capital worth over one billion dollars in a global innovation fund, with these investors’ total cumulative net worth currently at 170 billion dollars. Major countries, such as China, are devoting much more public funding toward renewable energy, with 350 billion dollars to be invested by 2020. The question is no longer whether or not clean energy is a worthy investment, as big oil and coal industry lobbyists have been attempting to argue against for years, but how fast all of these accelerating investments can be put to the best possible use. Many countries like Costa Rica, the Netherlands and the United States are innovating and experimenting with new clean energy technologies, such as electric powered transportation, hydroelectricity and upgrading their power grids. By doing so, they are inspiring newly found optimism for climate change researchers and innovating start-up companies around the world.

A newly published study from the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps program in the U.S. has found that renewable energy is creating new jobs twelve times faster than the rest of the U.S. economy. Solar and wind jobs are growing by 20 per cent annually, and sustainable energy related jobs have grown from 3.4 million in 2011 to 4.5 million jobs today. These jobs do not only originate from clean energy production but also consumption, such as making home and industrial appliances energy efficient and transitioning transportation systems from using fossil fuel to electric.

While cars like Tesla are at the forefront of the electric transportation market, other companies are also designing and building electric buses and trains around the world. In the U.S., some New York and Chicago districts have already started to implement electric school buses. Not only are these school buses tremendous for cutting down on carbon emissions, they are also safer for not carrying a giant tank of combustible gasoline. According to the U.S. National Fire Protection Agency, an average of six buses, which includes school buses, caught fire every day from 1999 to 2003.

Electric powered trains are already being used in countries such as in the Netherlands. The Dutch government announced in 2015 that all of its electric trains would run completely on wind power alone by 2018. The program was so successful that it was completed much ahead of schedule, and on January 1 of this year, the Dutch government announced they have now one hundred per cent efficiency from wind power for these trains. Not all of this wind energy comes from the Netherlands alone however, with wind farms in Belgium and Finland also contributing, demonstrating that the European power grid is adapting to transporting and conserving clean energy.

The innovation needed to eventually make commercial aircrafts run entirely on electricity is also much closer than we think. The Solar Impulse is a one seater airplane designed by Swiss engineers and entrepreneurs Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard that has been prototyped and developed since 2009. This aircraft not only runs on electric energy, but is also completely self-sustainable thanks to the solar power cells completely covering its outer sphere.

In August of 2016, the Solar Impulse II finished the first ever flight around the entire globe without using any fuel, taking a year to do so and touching ground in 16 different countries. The flight over the Pacific took five days and shattered the world record of the longest air flight duration by one pilot. Despite its great achievements and promises, there is still a long way to go for similar planes to be developed commercially as the flight speed is slow. Yet, it definitely demonstrates that such possibilities are within our very near future.

Many European countries are in the process of completely phasing out coal from their energy consumption. The first country in Europe estimated completely phase out from coal is Finland, which in 2015 only had eight per cent of its total energy powered from it. Not only will they be the quickest to phase out coal, but they are also passing legislation to completely ban the burning of coal in the entire country by 2030. Similarly, French president Francois Hollande announced in November of 2016 that France will also completely phase out coal from their energy use by 2023. France is one of the biggest manufacturers of nuclear power in the world, even selling it to neighbouring countries.

However, France is also currently undergoing a minor crisis due to its nuclear power, as many of the plants are outdated with old steel, have parts prone to fracture, and concerns of forged and falsified past quality reports about critical components. Addressing these concerns, Hollande has claimed that the time window of six years will enable France to fully address these issues and meet their goal of phasing out coal.

Similarly, the U.K. plans to phase out their coal consumption by 2025, with fifty per cent of electric consumption being powered by clean energy, representing an increase from twenty per cent in 2010. Beyond electricity consumption, Germany is dedicated to phasing out 95 per cent of unclean energy from the country by 2050 to shortly after become completely carbon neutral. It seems the most important first steps for accomplishing carbon neutrality are phasing out coal from electricity consumption, transitioning modes of transportation to electric power, mass manufacturing clean sources of energy, and upgrading power grids to transport and store this energy.

The most ambitious country in the world to achieve carbon neutrality is Costa Rica, which famously achieved 75 days in a row in 2015 powering their electricity entirely from clean sources. After this achievement however, many analysts doubted their ability to continue this performance in the long-term as the main electric production source of Costa Rica is hydroelectric and dependence on rainfall. In 2014, Costa Rica endured a major drought which was the worst in fifty years, and researchers are concerned that climate change will make these droughts more frequent in the future.

Nevertheless, Costa Rica disproved these concerns in 2016 by having 250 full days of the year running entirely on its clean energy, with 98 per cent of the whole year’s energy being from clean energy. Costa Rica is planning to achieve total carbon neutrality by 2021 and may even achieve that ahead of schedule. This precedence of a small country achieving a worldwide goal is a tremendous achievement and demonstrates to other countries around the world that they can dedicate themselves to clean energy, and profit from the current spike in international investment and innovation. Planning to do just that, forty seven nations have signed agreements into the Paris Climate Accord at the November Climate Vulnerable Forum to cut out all their unclean energy sources between 2030 to 2050. Many of these countries have pledged to update their domestic energy policies by 2020, a great achievement for the worldwide battle against carbon emissions.

Many of these achievements at the end of last year have been grossly overshadowed by the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, who famously claimed climate change is not caused by humans, but is instead “a Chinese hoax.” His vehement disregard for the clean energy industry and research from federal scientists and agencies like NASA has put the country into a strange identity crisis, as states like California are innovating and transitioning quickly toward clean energy, and state departments have tweeted out facts about climate change in defiance to the president. While Trump can try to shut down their twitter accounts and their voices, there is actually little he can do to stop states from continuing on as they were before. He will attempt to cripple the Environment Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan introduced by Obama in accordance with the Paris Climate Accord, and remove U.S. funding from the Accord altogether, but all this will do is scare away foreign investment into great new American technologies such as Tesla, and slow down the creation of jobs into one of the fastest growing industries in the country.

While Trump may want to help the 200,000 or so coal workers in the country by subsidizing coal more than ever before to keep it profitable, research into coal efficiency and cost of production demonstrates that coal will simply not keep up with natural gas and clean energy at all. In contrast, there were 770,000 clean energy production jobs in the United States in 2015, according to a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency. Some states, such as Massachusetts, are already introducing legislation to phase out all non renewables by 2035 and all fossil fuels by 2050.

Meanwhile, China is building three football fields of solar panels per hour with government money, and they have proposed a 50 trillion-dollar plan for a global power grid for clean energy by 2050. While it is impossible to know exactly how much of the world’s carbon gas emissions we will be able to slow down by these timelines, the amount of innovation, dedication and production for clean energy sources right now are simply astounding. The Paris Climate Accord and countries like Costa Rica are showing the world that it is possible for a globalized world to functionally work together to achieve concrete goals and change domestic economic policies successfully.

Cédric Parages is a U3 in Wildlife Biology student. To contact the author, please email