A recent database found that over 1,500 fossil fuel lobbyists represent companies and institutions—including universities and environmental organizations— that fight against climate change, leading many to fear that the fossil fuel industry is still successful in perpetuating our use of coal, oil, and gas through influencing public opinion and policy decisions.
But the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. The shift away from fossil fuels has already begun in the United States and across the globe.
In July 2023, a recent database found that over 1,500 fossil fuel lobbyists simultaneously represent many institutions and organizations that advocate for fighting against climate change. These bodies, which include liberal cities, climate organizations, and universities that, by having lobbyists employed by coal, oil, and gas companies, seem to contradict the values they stand for. As climate change effects get even worse with events like July being the hottest month ever recorded, it can be discouraging to hear that fossil fuel lobbyists represent the same organizations they claim to oppose.
The truth is that we need to stop worrying over the fossil fuel industry’s futile lobbying efforts because global steps toward the clean energy transition have already started.
While the possibility of eliminating fossil fuels is certainly possible, it will not be easy. The recent discovery of the “double agent” fossil fuel lobbyists is just the latest example of how deeply we are influenced by the industry. For over 150 years, fossil fuels have been a staple in American life, powering our homes, businesses, cities, and vehicles.
But times are quickly changing. In the last decade, generated electricity that comes from renewable sources has doubled in the United States, going from 10% to 20% in 2020. A large part of this is due to the weakening coal industry, as studies have shown that building renewable energy is much cheaper than continuing to use coal plants, as 70% of coal plants were more expensive to operate compared to the renewable alternatives. Another advantage is that clean energy doesn’t have to pay for extracting its “fuel”; for example, wind and solar power is easy to harvest without causing extreme pollution. Instead, the clean energy industry’s biggest cost is the actual technology of energy production. But the “learning effect” of this technology has increased solar power capacity exponentially while simultaneously reducing solar power costs exponentially.
Advances in clean energy provide an alternative to fossil fuels that can help mitigate the effects of climate change, spur economic growth in developing countries, and provide a cost-effective option. Clean energy—which includes hydropower, solar, wind, biogas, biomass, geothermal, wave, and tidal power—is much better for the environment because it emits much less greenhouse gas, or compound gasses that trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere.
Renewable energy is also getting public support, as a recent study found 77% of Americans say that building clean energy is more important than producing coal, oil, and natural gas.
Support for greener energy has also increased with policy initiatives and funding at a national and global scale. In 2022, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) which will invest $369 billion in clean energy and decarbonization projects. The IRA aims to both incentivize clean energy manufacturing and clean energy consumption. It offers tax credits and low-interest loans to renewable energy producers that essentially pay for building and operating costs. The investments also help give Americans jobs, as 100,000 jobs have been created with the $90 million invested so far; the IRA is also projected to employ 38 million total people by the end of the decade.
Globally, China is a leader in renewable energy infrastructure and capacity. Ahead of its five year plan, China’s non-fossil fuel energy sources account for over 50% of its total installed energy capacity.
European nations have also led the move towards clean energy, with almost 40% of total generated electricity coming from renewable energy sources in 2022. Some countries, like Iceland and Norway, have an even larger percentage of clean energy usage. Harnessing natural resources, Iceland generates 86% of its electricity from geothermal power. Norway relies heavily on hydropower, from which it gets 76% of its energy.
Some have claimed that we are not transitioning to renewable energy sources fast enough, but the truth is that any major energy transition can take decades. In the past, even major energy transitions between fossil fuels did not happen overnight; switching from coal to oil took 50 to 60 years to complete. The transition between coal and oil to clean energy has already started. So far in 2023, solar and wind power have generated more electricity than coal power electricity in the United States, which has decreased by 27% since last year. This is mostly due to the fact that operating costs for renewable power plants are much lower than those for fossil fuel.
One major barrier the renewable energy industry faces is a rapidly increasing energy demand. But new technologies have proven we can reduce our energy consumption without necessarily giving up on luxuries we have become accustomed to. Retrofitting buildings, switching to smart grids, and pushing for travel and industrial efficiency have already shown significant potential for reducing energy demand. Retrofitting, or installing more efficient insulation, lighting, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and other systems, can reduce building energy consumption by 30%, while smart grids can reduce grid power losses and uses advanced data collection to collect data for peak energy times, thus reducing the need for fossil fuel plants to provide back up energy. Successful retrofitting projects in 2020 that implemented deep energy retrofitting and smart energy systems showed how much we can reduce emissions in places that contribute the most to climate change: cities.
A historic hall in Lisbon reduced its total electricity use from the grid by 50%, and retrofitted buildings in Milan have reduced their energy consumption by 60%. The Royal Borough of Greenwich also saved the equivalent of 667 homes by using a deep energy retrofit and energy efficient low-carbon technology. While these projects may be small examples, they shine a light on the possibilities of clean energy technology that can be used in urban spaces to have significant impacts on reducing our energy consumption.
While news of fossil fuel influence can be scary, it’s important to remember that clean energy’s long-term benefits are already being recognized and supported in our government and economy. Support for policy-backed incentives for clean energy and trying to consume clean energy are also crucial ways to push public opinions towards building a more sustainable future.