How we know the energy transition is here

It won’t be easy or simple, but clean energy is accelerating

Executive Editor
Illustration with a blue background and a dark blue circle, in front of which are two hands planting a small plant along with a floating wind turbine and a solar panel.
Illustration by Nadya Nickels.

You might be under the impression the world is not making progress shifting away from our reliance on the oil, natural gas and coal that emit the greenhouse gases warming our planet.

But in fact, several recent data points suggest the energy transition is happening, often faster than even some experts have predicted.

Take this wild stat about arguably the most recognizable climate technology: electric cars.

“In 2020, around one in 25 cars sold worldwide were electric; just a few years later, in 2023, it was one in five,” wrote Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, in a March Financial Times article.

The IEA is a venerable intergovernmental group that produces energy forecasts and scenarios that governments and corporations around the globe rely on for their own planning. This Paris-based agency wasn’t always a leader in this space, though. To wit: For years, it consistently low-balled its expectations on the global growth of solar power. Indeed, even the IEA’s well-regarded data wonks were flat-footed by the rapid rise of solar.

“It’s now cheaper to build onshore wind and solar power projects than new fossil fuel plants almost everywhere worldwide,” Birol wrote in his March article.

But members of the public may not be aware of such surprisingly positive stats.

As climate data scientist Hannah Ritchie says in her new book, scientists — and yes, the media too!  — have emphasized scary charts to give us the impression we’re all doomed by the impacts of a warming world. Yes, we have locked in a certain amount of warming with substantial impacts — and we’ll have to adapt. But progress on both reducing emissions themselves and boosting clean energy has been significant.

Let me share some quick numbers.

Before the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, the world was headed for anywhere between 3 and 5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century (with a median increase of 3.7, as shown by the below chart), according to the Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of organizations that tracks efforts to reduce emissions. Today, the world is headed for 2.7 degrees Celsius warming — almost 5 degrees Fahrenheit — by the end of the century.

Source: Climate Action Tracker • Values included for the global temperature increase projections are median, with extended ranges on either side.

That 2.7-degree rise is still (very!) alarming considering the dire impacts the United Nations has said could occur at just 2 degrees of warming. But every tenth of a degree of avoided warming means the world will experience incrementally less severe impacts from extreme heat, sea level rise and more. (We also need to watch for tipping points in our climate system, but delving into that is for another story.)

In short: although 2.7 degrees Celsius is way worse than 1.5 degrees (what scientists say we need to strive for), it’s still way better than 5 degrees, which is where we could have been heading before the Paris Climate Agreement.

“There is a measurable difference between a pre- and post- Paris world,” Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, told me at an Aspen Institute climate conference in Miami in March.

“If we don’t talk about what has been accomplished, we are disempowering and discouraging people from taking action,” Hayhoe added.

Consider the stats

Per capita greenhouse gas emissions actually peaked a decade ago and are now slowly falling, according to Ritchie’s book. This trend is a sign a peak of total emissions — what we really care about, from a global warming perspective — is coming soon, she writes: “This is the case with any metric in a world with an increasing population. Per capita measures will peak first, then it’s a tug-of-war over whether our impacts per person will fall more quickly than the population is growing.”

Ritchie is optimistic we’ll see our total global emissions peak in this decade, and the IEA predicts demand for all fossil fuels will peak in that same time frame too.

Echoing Birol, Ritchie also notes how wind and solar rapidly transformed from being among the most expensive ways to generate energy 15 years ago (a blink of an eye for our energy systems), to often being the cheapest today.

We’ve seen examples of this in our own coverage at Cipher. For example, wind produced more electricity than natural gas in the European Union last year, a trend we’re seeing to varying degrees in the United States and in other parts of the world with similarly developed economies.

Despite headlines indicating otherwise, sales of electric cars in the U.S. are still growing. True, sales are not expected to keep growing as dramatically as they did in the first part of this decade. But a recent report predicts that, even with more conservative assumptions, positive sales growth will continue in the coming years and emission goals are still within reach. (Though more volatility is expected on shorter time scales; for example, this year’s first-quarter sales fell compared to the last quarter of 2023, according to Cox Automotive).

The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, although still largely unknown among the American public, has numerous tax credits for electric cars, heat pumps and other purchases poised to help consumers fund their own clean energy transitions.

A bumpy road ahead

To be sure, we also know the energy transition will probably be messy; energy costs could go up, partly precisely because we’ll eventually consume fewer fossil fuels. Aggregate global carbon dioxide emissions continue to increase, largely due to increased coal-fired power in emerging markets in Asia. What’s more, data from the Climate Action Tracker consortium mentioned earlier shows warming projections have plateaued when they need to keep dropping.

The IEA is calling for an “orderly” energy transition, where we gradually use less oil, natural gas and coal while increasing our use of clean energy in equal amounts. But the agency also warns of the risk of a “disorderly” transition, where supply and demand could become mismatched, leading to price spikes, supply chain disruptions and more. We’re still early in this new cleantech journey so it’s an open question whether we’ll be more orderly — or disorderly.

Again, consider electric cars. The most recognizable technology of the energy transition, they offer a window into the ups and downs all types of climate technologies will face in the years and decades to come. Using electric cars remains challenging without the omnipresence of charging stations. Electric cars also currently cost more upfront than cars with combustion engines, making it difficult for people without big incomes to afford them. That’s not an argument to not transition to electric cars but instead a call to action to do the best we can to smooth out this transition.

Another challenge on the horizon: As we grow increasingly reliant on variable wind and solar, we need to ensure we keep the lights on all the time — even when it’s not windy or daytime. Efforts are underway to develop storage technologies that can hold energy for days or even weeks at a time, while other types of steadier power — think advanced nuclear power and even fusion — are also under development.

Here’s one more example to mull at your next mealtime: Consider the recent substantial decline in sales of plant-based meat. Have we seen the end of planet-healthy meat alternatives? Certainly not, but we’re likely to see new twists on ways to clamp down on the emissions from beef.

In short: Buckle up, because we’ll be seeing a lot of these types of cycles as new tech commercializes, some fail and yet more new ones emerge.

Technology’s role

Technology isn’t the only answer. But it likely lies at the center of any response to climate change. That’s because appealing to our sense of altruism to sacrifice our quality of life — fly less, eat less meat — to tackle the problem is unlikely to succeed, experts say.

We saw that reality with some people’s unwillingness to wear masks during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people’s health was most at risk. With climate change, we would be asking people to change their behavior — sacrifice — for the rest of their lives, for change they may not even see in their lifetimes.

“A population as a whole doesn’t generally sacrifice its way to change,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, founder and director of Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication, and a senior research scientist at the Yale School of the Environment, told Cipher recently.

Ultimately, we should remain cautiously optimistic about the potential for exponential growth in new technologies.

Roy Amara, a Stanford computer scientist, reportedly told his colleagues in the 1960s he believed “we overestimate the impact of technology in the short-term and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

I’ve thought about that quote a lot as I’ve had a front-row seat to watch our energy and climate systems evolve over the roughly 15 years I’ve covered this beat, including the last three years leading Cipher.

I’m learning successful climate startups are probably going to require 10, 20, 30 years to turn into solid businesses — and fossil fuels are the bedrock of our stubborn energy system. Yet if we examine the numbers and trends close enough, we’ll see slow change is occurring.

Just like you can’t see the curve of the Earth when you’re standing on the ground, we’re at a curve in history we can’t see from our temporal vantage point. A few hundred years from now, I predict historians will write about these decades as a critical period when our energy system, and global heat-trapping emissions, finally started to shift.

It’s hard for us as humans — when we live such short lives compared to our 4.5-billion-year-old Earth! — to know we’re at a turning point. But I’m convinced we are.