When I look at my daughter -- and I know all parents feel this way -- I know I would do anything to keep her healthy and safe. A new report out from the world's climate experts makes it undeniably clear that we still have the chance to protect our kids from climate disruption, but time is running out.
Here is how the New York Times summarized the findings of the report, which the paper said was the "starkest warning yet" from world scientists:
Failure to reduce emissions, the group of scientists and other experts found, could threaten society with food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major cities and entire island nations, mass extinction of plants and animals, and a climate so drastically altered it might become dangerous for people to work or play outside during the hottest times of the year.
The report paints a scary picture, but I think its most important message is that we still have time to turn the corner on climate change -- the next 15 years will be pivotal -- and we can do it affordably. As a matter of fact, it's the cost of inaction that's the true threat to our economy.
Indeed, across the U.S., as we make the transition to clean energy, we’re not just cleaning up the air and water, but we're also saving money on our electric bills. In Georgia, for example, utilities recently received bids for solar projects at 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour, which is competitive with fossil fuels.
So it's more than a little infuriating to hear the dirty fuels industry complain about the expense of cleaning up its pollution, when we know that clean alternatives are available and affordable. While big polluters drag their feet, our kids and families continue to pay the cost of this pollution with our health, our healthcare bills, and possibly the safety of our very planet.
Since 2010 when Sierra Club and allies launched our campaign focused on existing coal plants, 179 coal plants across the U.S. have announced retirement, and clean energy has come rushing in to fill that gap. According to a new analysis, from 2007 to 2013 U.S. coal generation fell by 21 percent, which resulted in a 16 percent drop in U.S. carbon emissions. The majority of that coal power was replaced by wind, solar, and energy efficiency -- not natural gas. Indeed, of our drop in emissions, 40 percent of the fall came from switching to renewables and 30 percent can be attributed to energy efficiency, while only 30 percent came from switching to gas (Greenpeace and EIA).
So far in 2014, renewable energy has accounted for 40 percent of all new energy projects, continuing to transform the U.S. energy landscape. Prices for clean energy have continued to fall (an 80 percent drop since 2009 for solar, 63 percent for wind), and according to Lazard these projects are now competitive with new gas plants. Furthermore, because we’re using energy more efficiently, U.S. energy demand has remained flat in recent years, which means some of this retiring coal capacity just won't need to be replaced.
These new clean energy sources also help us modernize the grid. Last year's polar vortex and natural gas shortage showed the vulnerability of relying too much on gas-fired plants. In contrast, wind and solar power held strong during this period and helped make up the shortfall in key markets like Texas and the Mid-Atlantic. This is one of the reasons why utilities should look to add clean energy to their portfolio when replacing coal.
Finally, this shift in our energy mix doesn't just benefit our children's future -- it also improves their lives today. Retiring the 179 coal plants announced to date is projected to prevent more than 4,600 deaths per year and $2.1 billion in healthcare costs, according to data from the Clean Air Task Force.
We don't want to go back to a system where power plants cause thousands of deaths per year and take a wrecking ball to our climate -- and we don't have to. In simple economic terms, it is not financially worthwhile to prop up aging, outdated coal plants that damage public health when we can invest in modern solutions like wind and solar.
As the world's leading scientists hold up a danger sign, hundreds of thousands of Americans who are moving their communities beyond coal are pointing the way to a solution. This is not a time for cynicism and despair -- it's a time for hope, determination, and action. Join us.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal campaign director