Virtually every clean energy record in the world has been broken in the past year. The most investment in clean energy ($329 billion in 2015), the most new renewable capacity (a third more than in 2014), the cheapest ever solar power (in Chile, where it’s half the cost of coal), the longest a country has been run entirely on renewable electricity – 113 days over this summer in Costa Rica.
The pace of the shift to a clean economy is astonishing. This year, half a million solar panels have been installed every day, while China has erected two wind turbines an hour. Wind farms off Denmark, solar farms in Morocco, wave farms off Scotland – everywhere you look, an unparalleled global effort is taking place, one that dwarfs the achievements of the space race.
Nevertheless, the scale of the problem is immense. Even as Barack Obama was announcing the ratification of the historic Paris Agreement on climate change, which aims to hold global temperatures to no more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels, he had to concede, ‘Even if we meet every target embodied in the agreement, we’ll only get to part of where we need to go.’ This is also the first year in which global CO2 levels crossed the symbolic 400ppm threshold.
Never before has our species contemplated a task so vast: to change the composition of the air itself. And when the history of this great green leap comes to be written, it will presumably be told as a story of technologists, of activists, of Elon Musks saving the world from itself. But in fact no greater part is being played than by government, the only kind of institution we have evolved that can co-ordinate an effort of this magnitude, and that is ultimately responsible for doing so.
Jigar Shah, founder of the global clean energy company SunEdison and more recently of investment firm Generate Capital, put it like this: ‘When you think about the spread of technology like the iPhone, it didn’t really replace anything. It wasn’t something that people even considered they needed till they got it. It was greenfield. But clean energy is providing the exact same service you’ve relied on for a hundred years: kilowatt hours. So, how do we get to 100% clean energy? The only answer is government regulation.’