Op-ed: In the race for clean energy, the US is both a leader and a laggard — here’s how

We are currently in a tug-of-war between progress and the pugnacity of the fossil fuel industry.

Announcing recently that the world broke a record by generating 30% of all electricity from renewable sources in 2023, the British think tank Ember said the data proves we are in a “new era” of energy in which a permanent decline in fossil fuels is “inevitable.”

The new era would be even more inevitable if the United States fully committed to phasing out fossil fuels. More on that shortly. But first, the undeniably good news.

The new global record in the generation of renewable energy was powered primarily by solar and wind. Solar power has been the fastest growing source of electricity in the world for 19 years in a row according to Ember’s Global Electricity Review 2024. Providing just 1.1% of the globe’s electricity in 2015, solar now produces 5.5% of the supply.

In that regard, the United States is a major player. Our share of solar electricity has grown from 1% to 6% since 2015. In terms of raw numbers, the United States is the world’s second-leading generator of electricity from solar energy, with China the global leader by far.

Wind power offers a similar story, having more than doubled its share of the world’s electricity from 3.5% in 2015 to nearly 8% in 2023. And again, the United States looks great, doubling wind’s share of U.S. electricity generation from 5% in 2015 to 10% in 2023, coming in, again, second behind China.

The combined 16% of wind- and solar-powered electricity flowing throughout the nation is especially impressive given the fact that only 0.2% of U.S. electricity came from these sources just a quarter century ago. The shift helped the United States to drop its share of fossil fuels in the energy mix from 67% in 2015 to 59% last year. The shift, combined with the huge shift from ultra-dirty coal to more-moderately dirty gas helped cut our power sector carbon dioxide emissions by 41% from a peak in 2007.

U.S. still needs to do more

But that pace of change remains far from sufficient for the United States to do its part for climate change and to help the planet’s temperatures stay under the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7-degrees Fahrenheit) limits of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The main reasons: our unsustainable levels of energy consumption as a wealthy nation and our too-slow phaseout of fossil fuels.

According to the Ember report, per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the United States are three times higher than the global average and remain among the highest of all major economies.

Many U.S. politicians who are apologists for the fossil fuel industry often deflect blame for heat-trapping gases onto newer mass emitters such as China or India. Indeed, China is a conundrum, adding more than half of the world’s solar and wind installations last year yet still producing more than half the world’s electricity from coal and spewing nearly a third of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Countries like China and India clearly need to do more. But the fact remains that, even with reductions of recent years, the United States, which produced one quarter of the world’s global warming gases two decades ago, still produces between 13% and 14% of the world’s carbon emissions, more than triple our share of the world’s population. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says on its Climate.gov website: “The United States bears a greater share of the responsibility for current conditions—on both a national and per-person level.”

A recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) shows that the best ways for the United States to meet its climate goals under the Paris Agreement and achieve a near phaseout of fossil fuels are to ramp up renewables in the power sector, increase energy efficiency, and electrify buildings, transportation, and industry.

Doing so would generate tremendous benefits, including a more than $100 billion reduction in consumer energy costs in 2030, $800 billion in public health benefits by 2050, and nearly $1.3 trillion in avoided climate damages by 2050. While the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) roughly doubles the current pace of annual emissions reductions to about 3% per year through 2030, the country will need to further accelerate its reductions to roughly 5% per year to achieve its climate targets.

Slash gas

Fully decarbonizing the power sector—which is a key strategy for meeting our climate goals—will require dramatically slashing gas use as we continue to phase out coal. A UCS analysis showed that wind, solar and other renewables would nearly triple to 60% of U.S. electricity generation in 2030 and 92% in 2050, while gas use would fall from more than 40% of the U.S. electricity mix today to 25% in 2030 and a mere 2% in 2050.

Gas once played an important role in suppressing coal-fired electricity, with less carbon emissions. But the benefit has expired. The emissions of methane, which traps heat much more effectively than carbon dioxide, is now widely viewed alongside carbon dioxide as a critical threat that could lead the United States to miss its commitment to the Paris Agreement.

One key reason our power sector emissions are triple the global rate, according to the International Energy Agency, is that we still source 42% of our electricity from gas. Politicians can sneer at China all they want for coal and carbon emissions, but the U.S. spews so much methane via gas and oil operations that it is far and away the world leader for that fossil fuel. The U.S. pumped a world-record amount of crude oil last year, with ExxonMobil and Chevron seeing some of their biggest profits in a decade. Our gas generation last year hit a new record too, preventing a global drop in generation.

Globally, the IEA’s net zero scenario says the world’s gas generation must fall from its current 23% of the world’s electricity to just 2.4% over the next 16 years, with “no need for new long lead time upstream oil and gas conventional projects.” To help meet that goal, both UCS and IEA analyses call for roughly tripling the electricity generated by wind, solar, and other renewables by 2030.

Other wealthy nations are proving that the technology is already here to reduce our carbon intensity and speed the energy transition. While 59% of electricity in the United States is produced by fossil fuels, the share in several other wealthy major economies such as the United Kingdom and Germany, now stands under 50%. Britain’s per-capita carbon emissions are a quarter of those in the United States.

Tug of war

The major question in this country is the will to act. We are currently in a tug-of-war between progress and the pugnacity of the fossil fuel industry. Our potential to speed toward net zero is obvious. There are the commercial-scale offshore wind farms being developed off the East Coast. Solar offers many avenues for adoption, from individual rooftops to large-scale fields. Electrification, from home heat pumps to vehicles, is no longer an oddity.

Significant tax credits and incentives are available in the Inflation Reduction Act that will significantly ramp-up investments in all these areas. The Biden administration has also launched several initiatives to boost renewable energy infrastructure and announced several major rules to cut methane emissions and carbon pollution from coal plants and motor vehicles and trucks. If they all became permanent, the United States would take a rightful place in global leadership.

But some of those rules are already being challenged in the courts by the fossil fuel and auto industries, and conservative states friendly to oil and gas interests; more are likely to be challenged. The ultimate future of those rules may rest in the hands of a conservative U.S. Supreme Court and former President Trump, who pledges to kill those rules if elected.

He renewed that pledge last month at a private gathering of oil and gas executives at his Mar-a-Lago resort. In attendance, according to the Washington Post and the New York Times, were executives from ExxonMobil, Chevron and the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s top lobbying arm.

Meanwhile the oil industry continues to smother this nation like no other wealthy nation with disinformation, denial, and delay on the transition. Last month, Democrats in the House and Senate published a joint staff report loaded with so much evidence of disinformation that Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin last week urged the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the fossil fuel industry for its coordinated campaign.

Last fall, ExxonMobil Chair and CEO Darren Woods deployed the industry’s playbook of doubt and diversion in a speech to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit. Despite the IEA’s assessment that no more major oil and gas projects are needed, Woods claimed, “While renewable energy is essential to help the world achieve net zero, it is not sufficient—wind and solar alone can’t solve emissions in the industrial sectors that are at the heart of a modern society.”

This month, the American Petroleum Institute launched an ad campaign urging the nation to “harness America’s abundant oil and natural gas.” The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, a top trade organization representing many top oil and chemical companies, launched a Don’t Ban Our Cars ad campaign against the Biden administration’s new tailpipe rules. The rules are not a ban; rather, they tighten standards that the administration hopes will result in incentivizing 56% of new cars to be electric by 2032.

When you consider all the disinformation, it’s remarkable that the United States has any kind of leadership in the renewable revolution. What we can hope for is that reports such as the one from Ember are a sign that, for all the huffing and puffing of Big Oil and Gas, the market—that is to say, the people—are speaking more loudly.

Most people in the United States—perhaps because of disinformation—are not yet be ready to completely do away with oil and gas. Still, according to a Pew survey last year, two of every three people in the United States want policies that prioritize renewables over more fossil fuel generation. In a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll last year, three out of four respondents say they would be comfortable with solar panels in their community and nearly 7 in 10 respondents said they would be comfortable with wind turbines.

As Darren Woods pontificates about the “unmatched” societal benefits of oil and gas, the deficits are piling up all around us. Climate change and its associated storms, heat waves, droughts and spread of infectious diseases now stand at the tipping point of making life miserable and unsustainable across the planet. Woods skips over the wealth of studies in recent years that say millions of people die every year around the world from pollution associated with fossil fuels.

More and more, people no longer want to join Woods and the fossil fuel industry in skipping over the carnage. No matter the disinformation, the nation has begun to say the benefits are far greater from weaning ourselves off oil and gas. A majority wants the United States to enter the new era of renewable energy and play its part in assuring that inevitable decline of fossil fuels.

This post originally ran on The Union of Concerned Scientists blog and is republished here with permission.

About the author(s):

Derrick Z. Jackson
Derrick Z. Jackson

Jackson is on the advisory board of Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate. He's also a Union of Concerned Scientist Fellow in climate and energy.

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