Will Renewable Energy Stop Global Warming?

Will renewable energy stop global warming?

Global warming is the long-term heating of Earth’s surface and air due to human emissions of greenhouse gases over the past century or more. The main human activity that emits greenhouse gases is the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas for energy and transportation (NRDC, 2022). These gases act like a blanket, trapping heat in the atmosphere and leading to an overall increase in global average temperature. According to NASA, global temperatures have already risen over 1°C since the late 1800s, causing impacts like melting ice sheets and rising sea levels (NASA Climate, 2017).

One proposed solution to reduce global warming is transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower. Renewable energy does not emit greenhouse gases, so shifting electricity production and transportation systems away from fossil fuels could help curb emissions and slow the rate of global temperature rise. However, major questions remain about whether renewable energy development can be scaled up quickly enough to make a meaningful difference in avoiding the worst impacts of climate change (National Geographic, 2023).

The Link Between Fossil Fuels and Global Warming

The combustion of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas releases large quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. According to the UN, fossil fuels account for over 75% of total global greenhouse gas emissions (UN – Causes and Effects of Climate Change). When these greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, they trap heat and cause the planet to warm up over time.

Human activities have increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations by over 40% since pre-industrial times, from 280 parts per million (ppm) in 1850 to 415 ppm in 2019 (ClientEarth – Fossil fuels and climate change: the facts). The present-day concentration is the highest in at least the past 800,000 years. This dramatic rise in greenhouse gases due to fossil fuel use is the main driver of climate change.

The Growth of Renewable Energy

The main renewable energy sources are solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, and biomass. In recent years, renewable energy capacity has expanded rapidly as costs have fallen dramatically. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), renewable energy sources accounted for over 42% of global electricity generation in 2028, with the share of wind and solar PV doubling to 25% (IEA). The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that the share of renewables used for U.S. electricity generation will rise from 21% in 2020 to 42% by 2050, with wind and solar accounting for over half that growth (C2ES).

Solar and wind power have seen particularly strong growth. Global solar PV capacity has increased over 200-fold since 2000, with an average annual growth rate of 42% over the past decade (IEA). The IEA expects solar PV capacity to reach over 5,500 gigawatts (GW) by 2040, becoming the largest source of power capacity globally. Wind power capacity has also expanded rapidly, growing at an average annual rate of 17% over the past decade and projected to reach over 2,400 GW globally by 2040 (IEA).

The Potential of Renewables to Reduce Emissions

Numerous studies have analyzed the emission reduction potential of renewable energy. According to research from the World Resources Institute, replacing fossil fuel plants with renewable energy could reduce CO2 emissions in the power sector by over 80% by 2050 (Setting the Record Straight About Renewable Energy, https://www.wri.org/insights/setting-record-straight-about-renewable-energy). As renewable energy scales up around the world, it is already displacing fossil fuel generation and reducing emissions. The United Nations reports that renewable energy deployment could cut carbon emissions from the power sector by up to 90% by 2050 (Renewable energy – powering a safer future | United Nations, https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/raising-ambition/renewable-energy).

While the potential for renewables to reduce emissions is significant, fully replacing all fossil fuel use with renewable energy faces challenges. Factors like intermittency, storage, grid infrastructure, and cost competitiveness currently limit the scale and penetration of renewables. Fossil fuels are still often used to complement renewable generation. Developing more flexible grids, energy storage, and cross-border interconnections can help overcome these barriers and increase the proportion of demand met by renewables.

Challenges With Scaling Up Renewables

Though renewable energy has grown significantly in recent years, there are still major challenges to scaling it up to levels needed to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change. Three key challenges include:

Intermittency and storage challenges: Renewable sources like wind and solar are intermittent, generating energy only when the wind blows or sun shines. This requires backup power or storage solutions when renewable generation is low. Developing cost-effective, large-scale energy storage is still difficult (source).

Infrastructure and transmission constraints: Bringing energy from wind and solar farms to cities and towns requires expanded transmission infrastructure. Building long-distance, high-capacity transmission lines faces siting, permitting, and cost challenges (source).

Cost competitiveness: Though costs have declined, renewable energy often still costs more than fossil fuels. It’s challenging for renewables to compete on price without subsidies and incentives that policymakers are reducing (source).

Other Strategies to Reduce Emissions

While scaling up renewable energy is crucial for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, experts agree it is just one component of the comprehensive strategy needed to address climate change. Other important emission reduction strategies include:

Energy efficiency improvements – By upgrading equipment, appliances, buildings and vehicles to be more energy efficient, we can continue to provide energy services while using less fossil fuel input. For example, switching to LED lighting, properly insulating buildings, and driving electric vehicles can all lead to major energy savings (WRI, 2019).

Carbon capture and sequestration technologies – These technologies capture CO2 emissions at their source before they enter the atmosphere, and then store that CO2 underground or use it in manufacturing or industrial processes. While still an emerging solution, carbon capture allows us to continue using fossil fuels during the transition to renewables while avoiding some emissions (Chen, 2022).

Reforestation and afforestation efforts – Planting new forests or re-planting formerly forested land draws down and stores carbon as trees grow. Combined with protecting existing forests from deforestation, reforestation is a natural climate solution that removes CO2 from the air (IRENA, 2019).

A comprehensive climate strategy will require rapidly transitioning to renewable energy and pairing this shift with energy efficiency, carbon capture, natural climate solutions like reforestation, and other emissions reduction approaches. With multiple solutions working together, we can curb global warming and build sustainable energy systems.

Developing a Comprehensive Climate Strategy

While scaling renewables is essential to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, experts widely agree that an effective climate strategy requires a comprehensive, portfolio-based approach that goes beyond any one technology or solution. Reducing emissions to the levels needed to avoid the worst climate impacts will require rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels across all sectors of the economy – including electricity, transportation, buildings, industry and agriculture. This demands strategic deployment of renewables along with other low-carbon technologies like nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, and energy efficiency. It also requires complementary policies like carbon pricing, clean energy standards, infrastructure investment and updated building codes.

Many nations have developed comprehensive climate plans aiming to balance renewable energy growth with other mitigation strategies. For example, the USAID Climate Strategy 2022-2030 focuses on reducing emissions across all sectors while boosting partner country resilience. The US National Climate Task Force coordinates policies to accelerate clean energy while also promoting climate-smart agriculture, resilience, and environmental justice. Experts widely agree that renewables have excellent potential to curb emissions but must be embedded within economy-wide efforts engaging all available tools and technologies.

The Role of Individuals and Communities

While large-scale policy changes and industry transitions are crucial to addressing climate change, individuals also have an important role to play in reducing emissions through their everyday choices and actions. Some impactful steps individuals can take include:

  • Reducing energy use at home by adjusting thermostats, installing energy efficient appliances, and turning off lights and electronics when not in use
  • Choosing clean transportation options like walking, biking, public transit, and electric vehicles
  • Cutting carbon-intensive foods like beef from their diet in favor of plant-based foods
  • Reducing air travel and offsetting unavoidable flights
  • Making sustainable purchasing choices by buying fewer new consumer goods, repairing when possible, and recycling

At a community level, grassroots climate action movements are growing rapidly. These groups advocate for climate policies, promote clean energy programs, organize educational events and cleanup projects, and more. Some well-known examples include the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and the Youth Climate Strike inspired by Greta Thunberg. Anyone can join an existing local climate group or start their own to raise awareness and create change from the ground up [1].

While individual actions may seem small, they collectively send a message to businesses and policy makers about the desire for a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. Through consumer, lifestyle, and political choices, individuals have the power to meaningfully lower their carbon footprints while shaping a more sustainable future [2].


In summary, renewable energy sources like solar and wind power have enormous potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change. The costs of renewables have fallen dramatically, allowing them to become a rapidly growing share of electricity generation worldwide. However, renewables face challenges with intermittency, storage, and transmission that limit how quickly they can scale to fulfill global energy needs. While essential, renewables alone cannot immediately supplant the vast existing fossil fuel infrastructure and solve climate change. Eliminating emissions from transportation, industry, agriculture and other sectors also requires developing advanced technologies, changing behaviors, implementing carbon pricing, and mobilizing society. Addressing global warming will necessitate rapid deployment of renewables combined with a diverse array of solutions across all sectors of the economy. With diligent, coordinated efforts across nations to enact comprehensive policies and transition to clean energy systems, it is possible to curb climate change while still supporting human development and economic growth. But there is no single magic bullet, and renewables by themselves are not enough to quickly stop dangerous planetary warming. Successfully stabilizing the climate to protect future generations will take a massive, multi-pronged effort using every available solution.


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation,” IPCC, 2012, https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/03/SRREN_report_HQ_web_2012-1.pdf.

International Renewable Energy Agency, “Renewable Energy and Climate Change,” IRENA, 2014, https://www.irena.org/-/media/Files/IRENA/Agency/Publication/2014/IRENA_RE_Climate_Change_2014.pdf.

Sawin, Janet L. and Kristin Seyboth, “Renewables 2021 Global Status Report,” REN21 Secretariat, 2021, https://www.ren21.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/GSR2021_Full_Report.pdf.

Friedlingstein, Pierre, et. al., “Global Carbon Budget 2021,” Earth System Science Data, 2021, https://essd.copernicus.org/articles/13/4791/2021/.

United Nations Environment Programme, “Emissions Gap Report 2021,” UNEP, 2021, https://www.unep.org/resources/emissions-gap-report-2021.

Masson-Delmotte, V., et al., “Global warming of 1.5°C,” IPCC, 2018, https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/.

Lazard, “Levelized Cost of Energy and Levelized Cost of Storage – 2021,” Lazard, 2021, https://www.lazard.com/media/451875/lazards-levelized-cost-of-energy-version-170-vf.pdf.

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