Climate change is a global problem that no one country can solve on its own. And when it comes to cutting emissions, some countries are moving quickly. But the absence of U.S. climate leadership is causing others to ease off their goals.
“We need to decarbonize the world economy really quickly and at massive scale,” says Joshua Goldstein, co-author of A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow. “The metric that matters here is carbon going into the atmosphere,” he notes. “It's not how many renewables you put in or how many nuclear plants you put in... it’s how much carbon is going up.”
Goldstein’s co-author, energy consultant Staffan Qvist, points to his native Sweden as one country that has successfully decarbonized its electricity grid. “In Sweden, for instance, half of the power comes from hydroelectric and half from nuclear,” he explains, “so it's kind of the ideal place in the world to try to do 100% renewables.”
But Qvist points to another European country – Germany – as illustrating the perils of pursuing a goal of 100% renewables for its own sake.
“A decade ago [they] said we’re going 100% renewables, we’re going all in the entire population is behind us, we have enormous funding and we're going to do this,” says Qvist, “and we have a decade of results and… basically they have not been able to reduce their carbon emissions almost at all.”
Sonia Aggarwal, Vice President at the consulting firm Energy Innovation, adds a caveat to the Germany story, noting how they decided to shut down their nuclear fleet when they made that pivot to renewables. “That’s not the right choice for the climate,” she says, “Much better would have been to get rid of the fossil units at the same time as turning toward renewables.”
Aggarwal is altogether more upbeat about the market-based prospects for decarbonization. “We’re seeing some numbers that I think are kind of nuts honestly,” she says, citing the fact that costs in the last decade have come down 90% for solar, 70% for wind, and batteries 80%.
“it is absolutely possible to put together a portfolio of zero carbon resources that looks many different ways and delivers electricity reliably,” says Aggarwal.
For their part, Goldstein and Qvist maintain that nuclear energy, whether in the form of already-existing power or more innovative ways of delivery, is key to reducing emissions as quickly as is needed.
“if all the countries in the world kept their [Paris] commitments… all it would do is flatten out our carbon emissions at today's levels. That's not good enough” says Goldstein. “Every day we’re putting way too much carbon into the atmosphere and what we need to be doing is rapidly decarbonizing the world economy.”