Chris Turner’s latest book is How to Be a Climate Optimist: Blueprints for a Better World, which won the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.
The summer of 2023 has witnessed a harrowing revival in the resonance of the phrase “global warming.” Climate scientists prefer the term “climate change,” because it better acknowledges the staggering scope of the crisis, which encompasses everything from precipitation patterns to the basic chemistry of the world’s oceans. But this summer was all about scorching heat. The Earth’s overheated atmosphere – driven by an intense El Nino cycle amplified by climate change – incinerated temperature records around the world and combined with abnormally low precipitation to unleash ferocious wildfires across Canada and beyond, some of the most destructive of them still raging.
I’m starting with the bad news – the very bad news – both because there is no denying the urgency of the human crisis this summer and because any discussion of our collective response to the climate crisis right now should first acknowledge the present-tense tragedy in communities such as Lahaina, Kelowna and Yellowknife, to name just the three most recent and proximate victims.
But I’m a self-proclaimed climate optimist, and so I’ve been keeping my eye on another series of developments through the smoke. And I’ve witnessed just as much evidence in recent months that this turbulent time is also one of unprecedented achievement in the global fight to defuse the climate crisis. It might even be time to declare real victories in certain battles, and to consider the possibility that this is what winning the whole war will look like in the years to come. Climate victories are not tidy – there will be no jubilant celebration of the enemy’s surrender in the streets – but claiming them, even under skies gone sickly orange with wildfire smoke, is vital for building the broad consensus of support for the changes so desperately needed to limit the overheating of the planet.
Let’s begin with a crucial fact of the climate crisis, which is that the victories mostly do not occur on the same battlefields as the losses. No action taken in recent months to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, no matter how dramatic, would have done anything at all to diminish the horrible force of the fires that burned much of the Hawaiian town of Lahaina to the ground and led to the evacuation of the capital of the Northwest Territories. The feedback loops on climate action simply cannot work that quickly or precisely.
The paths to climate victory have emerged elsewhere – and, lately, nearly everywhere. Together they chart a global transition from fossil fuels to clean energy that is unprecedented in both its speed and scope and rapidly accelerating. And it wasn’t only unprecedented: It was widely dismissed in many circles of economic and political power, as recently as a decade back, as somewhere between unlikely and fantastical. Which is why clean tech’s very existence today represents a significant win.
I encounter a dozen new data points documenting the triumph every week. In recent years, renewable energy – primarily solar and wind power – has become by far the primary source of new electricity on grids the world over, and forecasts this spring predict that global emissions from electricity production worldwide will soon begin to decline. Electric vehicles now account for 14 per cent of all new sales – up from less than 2 per cent just five years ago. In seven European Union countries, including car-obsessed Germany, more than 30 per cent of new vehicles sold in 2022 were fully or partly electric. From Frankfurt to Fredericton and beyond, millions of households – three million last year in the European Union alone, more than 20 per cent of all homes in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – have switched to humble, hyperefficient heat pumps for their heating, turning the simple appliance into an unlikely climate-fighting, Russia-defying hero.
I could extend this recitation of statistics indefinitely, revising the scale of ambition upward month by month. In May, analysts revised their 2023 forecasts for solar power’s growth in China, already the world’s leading market for solar panels by a wide margin, as new installations reached a level triple the record-setting pace of 2022. More than 300 gigawatts of solar energy will be added to electricity grids globally this year – more than twice the total power-generating capacity of all of Canada. And that’s just a single year of new solar projects.
“The Clean Energy Future Is Arriving Faster Than You Think” was how a recent New York Times headline put it, introducing reporting thick with yet more statistical testimony to the energy transition’s roaring success: Renewables set to topple coal as the world’s primary electricity source by 2025, the transition attracting nearly US$2-trillion a year in new investment, the solar industry pulling in more new funding than oil production for the first time ever. In 2020, the International Energy Agency, long skeptical in its forecasts for the growth of renewable energy, crowned solar “the new king of electricity” and predicted that it would be the single largest new source of power worldwide for the foreseeable future. And a 2022 Bloomberg report estimated that 87 countries have already reached “tipping points” in their adoption rates of clean energy technologies, beyond which the transition to new technologies often becomes inevitable.
The point is not any one of these data points. It is all of them, in a relentless rush, documenting a global embrace of climate solutions that has done nothing for more than a decade but vastly exceed expectations. This is what winning – or at least starting to win – looks like.
Oh, right. The yeah-buts.
In the 20 years I’ve been tracking this transition, I have seen this kind of evidence yeah-butted a thousand different ways. Yeah-but China is still building new coal plants (fewer than anticipated not long ago, with both China’s and the world’s coal consumption expected to peak in the next few years). Yeah-but the wind doesn’t always blow, yeah-but the sun doesn’t always shine (the price of energy storage is falling nearly as fast as the cost of solar panels now, and there are myriad other tools available for balancing power on grids). Yeah-but electric cars don’t have sufficient range (greater with each new model) or enough charging stations (more each year).
Yeah-but emissions are still rising worldwide. This one obliges closer examination. It’s true on its face, and troubling. And yet here, too, there are signs of a long, gruelling campaign pivoting toward victory. Emissions in much of the industrialized world have decoupled from economic growth – declining even as GDP continues to rise – and the global emissions curve is flattening. And all that ultimately matters is that long-term trajectory.
When I first started reporting on the energy transition, business as usual led to four, five, even six degrees Celsius of warming by century’s end. “That is truly the stuff of nightmares,” the energy transition expert Ramez Naam told climate journalist David Roberts on a recent episode of Mr. Roberts’ podcast Volts. “The good news is we have very likely cancelled that apocalypse.”
Mr. Naam noted that the most recent modelling tracks the world’s current emissions trajectory to between 2.1 and 2.4 C warming – still horribly destructive, but far from apocalyptic. And there’s every reason to expect the global curve to continue to trend downward below 2 C as the energy transition accelerates.
“We should all celebrate that for a while,” Mr. Naam said. “Because that is a level that is actually compatible with the world overall growing richer. … Let’s take a moment to actually be happy.”
The episode was recorded in front of a live audience in Seattle, and Mr. Naam started to clap. Nobody joined in. In climate advocacy circles, there isn’t much precedent for a victory lap. And that is a real problem for a movement that by necessity must seek popular support virtually everywhere.
There are reasons endemic to climate advocacy that make it particularly bad at the victory lap. Perhaps most prominent among these is the status of the primary opponents of climate action: the fossil fuel industries. How can clean energy be the victor if fossil fuels still rule, supplying the majority of the world’s energy and bending governments into freakish rhetorical and regulatory shapes to cater to their whims?
In my home province of Alberta, after all, one of Canada’s sterling climate victories – enormous new investments in renewable power projects, including almost $2-billion in a single recent deal with a Greek solar developer – was derailed, at least temporarily, by a reckless moratorium enacted by the provincial government in the name of natural gas. Climate advocates, weary from decades of denial and delay funded by fossil fuel lobbyists and their political allies, understandably see such setbacks as portents of still more defeat.
I’d argue, though, that while that might have been a reasonable view 10 or 20 years ago, the past decade of runaway success in the clean energy business has shifted the balance of power. The Alberta government’s seven-month pause on renewable energy project approvals is not the act of a muscular status quo reasserting its dominance. It’s a desperate rearguard defence against global forces of inevitable change that will roll on, setting worldwide records for new solar and wind development, with or without the support of the Premier of Alberta. Consider the parallel example of the coal industry in the United States, which could not stave off its own rapid decline even with a preposterously obstinate defender of “clean, beautiful coal” in the White House.
Climate advocates still fret, though, over claiming wins too soon. One common concern is that telling people victory is at hand will cause them to ease up on their support. Given how hard-won that public backing has been, this reluctance is understandable – but it’s also deeply misguided. As David Roberts explained in another one of his Volts podcasts: “If you’re fighting against climate change, and you get some positive reinforcement – hey, we made progress, we achieved something – you’re going to have positive feelings associated with the fight, and you’re going to fight more. This notion that like we’re constantly on the verge of everyone quitting and we can’t let any good news leak out, because that’s going to immediately drain people’s motivation to fight – it’s just nonsense. I don’t know where it came from. It doesn’t describe human beings.”
That’s the best reason to claim climate victories, however partial or limited, when they emerge: to build bigger and stronger bandwagons. People love to cheer for a winning team. People clamour to be part of a movement gathering speed and numbers – especially one racing to make the world better and provide durable long-term solutions for the anguish being felt this summer in communities hammered by heat waves and hurricanes and wildfire.
Pessimists might still point to the political arena, to national leaders and UN conferences, and say little has been accomplished and it’s never enough. But politics is a lagging indicator in the climate fight. The clean energy transition is not waiting on some Churchillian rallying of the troops; it is already well under way and speeding up by the day. And it can provide real, plausible optimism for a future in which the planet no longer grows only hotter.
Climate action is winning. Or at least starting to win. Which is exhilarating in its way, even amid the flames. And worth celebrating.