Renewable energy growth falters as carbon dioxide hits record levels

Offshore wind farm

The past couple of weeks have seen the convergence of two troubling trends.

Perhaps most troubling, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography released data last week from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere have reached record levels unseen not just in human history, but in the scientific record of the world.

At the same time, the International Energy Agency released a report on Monday showing that for the first time since 2001, the number of new renewable-energy installations in the world has plateaued.

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Global warming has been linked to accumulations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere produced by burning fossil fuels in cars and in power plants, as well as other industrial processes. (Other chemicals also function as greenhouse gases, but humans have less direct control over them.) 

Around the world, 177 gigawatts of new renewable power were installed last year, enough to power 64 million homes in the US. That total matches the growth in 2017. Taken by itself, a year of flat growth might not be a concern, but the IEA says that to reach goals of the Paris climate accords to limit global warming to 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) by 2100 will require the installation of 300 gigawatts of renewable energy a year. 

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The report attributes the shortfall primarily to China, where growth fell from 82 gigawatts in 2017 to 77 in 2018 after the country cut subsidies for new solar installations. Growth also dropped in the European Union and Japan. Growth in the U.S. and “other countries” made up the difference.

“The world cannot afford to press ‘pause’ on the expansion of renewables and governments need to act quickly to correct this situation and enable a faster flow of new projects,” Fatih Birol, IEA’s executive director, said in a statement.

Greenhouse-gas buildup

The new data, gathered from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii on May 11 shows a concentration of carbon-dioxide, of 415.26 parts per million over the South Pole. Experts consider a level of 350 ppm to be a safe level.

Mauna Loa data goes back to 1958, with observations recorded monthly. It shows carbon-dioxide passing 400 parts per million for the first time in 2013. Since the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere at the South Pole fluctuates, increasing in the southern winter and decreasing in summer, scientists plot the average rise in what has come to be known as the Keeling Curve.

Mauna Loa observatory data, Keeling Curve [Credit: Scripps Institute of Oceanography]

Ice-core data going back 800,000 years indicates carbon dioxide peaking at about 300,000 parts per million about 325,000 years ago. 

If the world hopes to stave off the most devastating effects of climate change—and if electric cars are to make a significant contribution to that effort—the growth in renewable energy deployment will need to accelerate. 

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