The crisis of climate disruption is emerging with greater intensity, seemingly by the day. The headlines are filled with stories of drenching storms and flooding , scorching droughts and wildfires , and stress on water and food supplies for millions around the world , even of islands already disappearing under rising seas . Never has it been more urgent to rapidly break free from fossil fuels.
Here we offer eight solutions to rapidly break free from fossil fuels.
- Four Solutions for Clean Energy show how we can move to 100% renewables in electrical power, transportation and buildings.
- Four Solutions for a Socially Just Transition line out how to move our communities beyond fossil fuels while improving the quality of life, especially for those lease responsible yet most impacted, lower-income people and people of color, and providing new opportunities for displaced workers.
More and more studies show we can run the world 100% on renewable energy largely by expanding wind and solar energy.
An avalanche of studies points the way to a world run on 100% renewable energy, largely by building up wind and solar energy. The studies show how to reach 100% in all sectors – electricity, transportation, and heating/cooling. Most prominent are roadmaps for 139 countries and 50 U.S. states done by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson and his team, and the Energy Revolution series done by Greenpeace. There are many others. The Jacobson team uses a 2050 target date for 100%, but says 2030 is feasible if we overcome political and economic hurdles. The emergence of severe climate disruption across the planet calls for achieving the 100% transition as soon as possible. That will likely take a climate mobilization with a scale of unified effort not seen since World War II.
Nations are already acting. Costa Rica plans to reach 100% renewable electricity this year, and Scotland by 2020. Denmark has targeted 100% in electricity, heating and cooling by 2030, and to end all fossil fuel burning by 2050. Some 50 cities, including 15 in the U.S., have made a 100% commitment including San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Copenhagen, Sydney, Frankfurt, Munich and Vancouver, B.C. Some cover only electricity, while others sweep in all sectors.
The Northwest is already the most renewable-powered region in the U.S., with hydropower and growing wind generation. With a regional commitment for rapid transition to wind and solar we could rapidly phase out coal and natural gas power plants, as well as eliminate hydropower dams on the Snake River that endanger some of the region’s most important salmon runs. Some Northwest utilities want to replace coal power with natural gas. We can’t let that happen, and must insist that any new power plants are renewable.
Sierra Club officially launched its Ready for 100 campaign in January to forward coal replacement with renewables. Environment America is also forwarding the 100% message. 350.org is making 100% a central part of the Break Free actions.
Seattle’s Bullitt Center is a highly efficient zero energy building that actually produces more energy than it uses.
Since the Northwest began focusing on electrical energy efficiency in buildings and equipment in 1978 it has saved five Seattle’s worth of electricity, or over four times the generating capacity of the Transalta Centralia coal-fired power plant, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council reports. That makes efficiency the region’s second largest power source after hydropower. The Council projects that energy efficiency investments will keep power demand from growing at all through 2030. But Northwest coal and gas power generation still pours 53 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air annually. We need to actively reduce power demand and shift buildings to clean energy such as solar panels and electric heat pumps powered by renewable energy.
Our best opportunity to begin cutting power demand, as well as oil and gas use in building heating/cooling, is with deep energy retrofits. These achieve far greater efficiency than typical “low hanging fruit” retrofits done on 2-3 years payback period. Longer payback times will require dedicated sources of funding including grants and low-interest loans. These can come from carbon revenues, patient investors with social responsibility objectives, and public banking, such as is being forwarded in Seattle. Low-income housing should receive priority for building retrofits.
We also need building codes upgraded to make all new buildings zero-energy by 2030 or earlier, requiring highly-efficient buildings that produce as much energy as they use. Seattle’s Bullitt Center is a world-leading example of a zero-energy building, actually producing more energy than it uses. San Francisco just became the first major U.S. city to require solar panels on all new buildings under 10 stories.
Vehicle electrification is spreading, including to car shares in Europe. This provides a good option for both reduced car use and pollution.
While almost all fossil fuel electricity in the U.S. comes from coal and gas, U.S transportation runs 86% on oil-based fuels. Transportation is the source of the 27% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), and the vast bulk of that comes from oil. Cars, and light-duty trucks are responsible for around 60% of transportation GHGs. They can also be readily electrified. In states with cleaner power supplies such as Oregon and Washington EVs are already the cleanest option. (Hybrids are still best in coal-heavy states.) With a 100% renewable power supply, we can zero out GHGs from electrified cars and light trucks.
U.S. electric vehicle (EV) sales more than doubled to nearly 120,000 in 2014, from 53,000 in 2012, and 2015 sales remained near 2014’s at 116,000 despite low oil prices. The pace continued steady in 2016 with nearly 28,000 in the first three months. Growth is expected with new offerings and major initiatives by automakers including Tesla and General Motors that lower costs and extend ranges, overcoming the prime obstacles to market growth. EVs to this point have mostly been purchased by upscale people, but are on their way to beating gas-powered cars for price. Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently predicted the tipping point by sometime in the 2020s, perhaps as early as 2022, and projected that EV’s could account for one-third of auto sales by 2040.
But we need to go faster to recover and stabilize our disrupted climate. We can accelerate EV growth with improved incentives for EV purchases and low-interest loans to buy them. Much work is needed on the regional scale to make EV ownership and charging practical, such as for residents of multifamily housing. A recent Northwest Energy Coalition report lined out key steps.
An even better option than ownership is car sharing. People who shift from ownership to sharing typically cut their driving miles 30-60%. The option is growing around the world, including Northwest cities. Numbers are still small, around 1% of cars on the road in the region’s urban areas at any one time, but up to 5% in denser neighborhoods, Sightline Institute reports. Since most car-share trips are local, this option meshes well with electrification when good charging spots are available. Though Northwest car shares still use gasoline vehicles, companies such as Car2Go offer EV options in Europe.
Around the world nearly one-quarter of rail mileage is electrified. With a public-led effort rail electrification can come to the U.S.
Buses and trains mostly run on diesel now, but electricity is a well-established alternative, and new options are opening.
Electric trolleybuses that draw energy from overhead wires are a familiar sight in cities such as Seattle, where a clean power supply makes them a genuinely low-carbon transportation mode. Now rapidly dropping battery prices spurred by the growing market for EVs are spilling over into city buses. Heavy-duty electric buses propelled by batteries are reaching service. Washington state in 2015 signed a contract with Proterra through which Northwest transit agencies could buy up to 800 electric buses over the next five years. King County plans to use the buses and recently completed a rigorous test that demonstrated they are fully capable of replacing diesel equivalents.
Most urban transit rail in the U.S. is already electrified, such as light rail in Portland and Seattle. Around the world much freight and interurban passenger rail also runs on electricity. Around a quarter of the world’s rail lines are electrified. Western Europe leads with 53% of lines propelled by electricity, while North America trails with 1%. While electrified rail is cheaper to operate, upfront costs of electrification are huge. Most world railroads are publicly owned, so they can access the public capital needed to accomplish the task. U.S. railroads are largely privately owned, so they have difficulties making the investment.
Solutionary Rail is a proposal developed by Backbone Campaign to create a multi-state Steel Interstate Development Authority that could partner with railroads to raise low-cost public capital and build publicly owned electrification infrastructure run on renewable energy. A campaign of electrification and track modernization would bring the speed and reliable service that railroads need to attract freight from trucks and passengers from highways and aviation. The effort would provide a just transition for workers in rail and energy industries.
Bus Rapid Transit with its own dedicated lanes is a growing option coming to King County and elsewhere.
Even if all personal vehicles were electrified, traffic would still clog our communities and degrade the quality of life, and continue the demand for natural resources needed to make vehicles. That will be as true of self-driving vehicles expected in coming years as it is of today’s cars. The best transportation option is to make a car-free life possible, and high-quality public transit is key to that. For lower- and middle-income people increasingly stressed by the cost of maintaining a personal car, improved transit is crucial.
The best transit systems have several key characteristics. Transit stops are within a quarter-mile from homes and destinations. Service is frequent, every 10 minutes or so on well-travelled routes. And coverage is widespread. Railed options including light-rail and street trolleys are increasing. But sometimes just improving bus service is the quickest and most economical way to build up transit. Express bus service and Bus Rapid Transit lanes are coming to cities including Seattle. Victoria Transportation Policy Institute offers a guide on how to make Public Transit Improvements.
Transit service should be affordable, particularly for low-income people. In Seattle the Transit Riders Union has successfully gained low-income fares. TRU provides a climate justice framework for building up transit: “every human being has a right to safe, reliable, affordable, and accessible public transit . . . for the future of humanity and of the planet, we must move beyond the car- and fossil fuel-based economy . . . the public transit system must be expanded and improved, not merely preserved.”
TRU adds, “We want high-capacity rapid transit, including buses and rail – but not at the cost of cutting off those who need public transit the most,” and maintains “that public transit must be paid for by corporations and the wealthiest section of the population, not by further squeezing poor and working people.”
To break free from oil we need communities that reduce the need to travel. Instead of spread-out sprawl where homes, workplaces, shopping and schools are segregated and far apart, we must build compact communities where homes are close to stores, work and other destinations. This really is all about returning to the traditional neighborhood pattern that prevailed before suburbanization. Compact communities are places where walking is easy, biking provides a great option and transit is convenient.
Transit works best at a certain level of density. A line with 20 buses per day should have 4 dwelling units per acre near stops, and one with 40, 7 units. Light rail should have 5-9 units per acre within walking distance of stops. Thus it is important when expanding service to focus first on denser areas, and to plan transit-oriented development (TOD) to build up compact communities around rail stations.
TOD is a key element of transit plans in Northwest cities including Portland and Seattle. But unless it is done with social justice at the forefront, TOD will increase trends toward urban gentrification. Ironically this will push low-income communities that use transit the most to outer areas less served by transit, making people who can afford a car drive more. Puget Sound Sage foresees this danger in South Seattle and has lined out a series of steps to incorporate justice concerns.
A recent report from Puget Sound Sage and Got Green lined out one of the most important steps – community control of land. These two Seattle climate justice groups call on the city to establish strong goals for community control through land trusts, non-profit housing development and local ownership of cultural anchors and businesses. Sound Transit, already obligated to devote 80% if surplus land around stations to affordable housing, should do so through community-based organizations, the groups say.
Portland’s new Tilikum Crossing, the largest car-free bridge in the world, provides separate lanes for bicyclists.
Bicycling is one of the best alternatives to driving. But bicyclists in U.S. cities, where auto and bike traffic commonly mix on the same streets, poses risks to life and limb. While Portland and Seattle rank high among U.S. cities for bike-friendliness, and have extensive have bike networks, lanes still are mostly not physically separated other traffic. The two best biking cities in the world, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, are distinguished by extensive, separated lane networks reserved for biking use – no cars and no pedestrians. Copenhagen is building new bike-only bridges, and saw the bicycle share of transportation climb from 36% in 2012 to 45% in 2014.
Seattle and Portland are starting to create some separated lanes. Portland’s recently opened Tilikum Crossing is the largest car free bridge in the U.S. It is reserved for bikes, pedestrians and railed transit.
In Washington state, Washington Bikes and Cascade Bicycle Club recently merged to create the largest bicycle advocacy group in the U.S. In Oregon bicycle advocacy is led by the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and Bike Portland.
A mobilization to rapidly move from fossil fuels clean energy will create millions of jobs in fields including energy efficiency retrofits, solar, wind and transit. Displaced workers must be provided assistance to transition into jobs of equal quality.
In the transition to an economy run on renewable energy, many jobs will be lost, but more will be created. The Mark Jacobson team’s scenarios for 100% renewable energy in the U.S. project 3.9 million conventional energy jobs eliminated, but 5.9 million new energy jobs created. The challenge will be to make sure that workers who have lost jobs are provided opportunities for new work of equal quality. The fact is that fossil industry jobs tend to be unionized and well-paid, while most of the emerging wind and solar industries are non-union. Many skills are also not easily transferrable.
In the 1990s labor leader Tony Mazzochi proposed a Superfund for Workers that would enable a just transition. Generally, just transition strategies include 3-4 years of full pay and benefits for displaced workers, 4 years of support for retraining including tuition, and full pensions with good health care for those who opt for retirement. Other just transition policies could include a preference for displaced workers in public sector hiring, and in new clean technology industries that gain public support.
A World War II-scale mobilization to rapidly move from fossil fuels will accelerate job creation in a number of sectors. An emphasis on transit will create many new jobs, as will construction of affordable housing and a program of mass building retrofits. The United Steel Workers, in the union’s 2014 Just Transition resolution, said, “a clean energy job is any job that helps our nations achieve our goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting our environment.” By that measure, if we set the right priorities to protect and restore our climate, clean energy job opportunities will be broad.
It is clear that if the “jobs vs. the environment” narrative is allowed to prevail in the debate over how to transition from fossil fuels, no one will win. Workers must have confidence that people and organizations advocating a clean energy future have their back, and make sure that workers are included in this future. That means pushing for good-paid union jobs and a full package of transition support. The Our Power campaign works for just transition. The Blue-Green Alliance draws together labor and environmentalists across the country, including in Washington and Oregon.
Fortunately, these solutions are with us, and already working in many places.
- We can move beyond an economy based on energy from coal, oil and gas.
- We can create a just transition to a world run on 100% renewable energy, create millions of new jobs, and build stronger communities.
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