Global check-in: who’s leading on clean energy?

February 24, 2021

This article is from the February 24, 2021, issue of Flip the Script, a weekly newsletter moving you from climate stress to clean energy action. Sign up here to get it in your inbox (and share the link with a friend).

Countries all around the world are powering toward a clean energy future. It’s clear some are pulling their weight more than others, propelled by strong ambition and effective government policies.

Let’s take a pulse across three key areas—renewable electricity generation, clean energy jobs, and EVs—to get a sense of who’s been kicking ass recently.


Image credit: Impact Power Solutions

Renewables powering the grid

Renewable power is moving full-steam ahead. Renewables generated around 27 percent of the world’s electricity supply in 2019, and at least 32 countries have 10 gigawatts or more of renewable power capacity (that’s a lot!). Hydropower accounts for more than half of this capacity (58 percent), followed by wind (22 percent) and solar (10 percent). Not surprisingly, the top countries for renewable capacity are also among the world’s most populous: China, the U.S., Brazil, India, and Germany. (On a per capita basis, the list looks radically different, with Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden leading the rankings.)

Here’s another way to compare countries: by the share of their total electricity generation that comes from renewables. Because of their abundant rivers and waterfalls, a surprising number of countries already generate 100 percent renewable power (or very close), largely from hydro—including Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Iceland, Norway, and Uruguay. By comparison, China’s renewable electricity share was 26.4 percent in 2019. The U.S. share is even lower—it inched from 10 percent in 2009 to 17.4 percent in 2019—but in a major milestone, wind power recently edged out hydropower for the first time ever.

Even more impressive are the countries with awesomely high renewable electricity shares but much smaller hydro contributions, like Denmark, which generated a whopping 77 percent of its power from renewables in 2019 (and nearly half from wind power alone!) Other European frontrunners include Germany (with a 42 percent renewable power share), Italy (40 percent), and the UK (38 percent).

If we take hydropower out of the equation entirely, we get an even clearer picture of the renewable revolution. In 2019, at least nine countries generated more than 20 percent of their electricity from just wind and solar, and at least four countries—Denmark, Lithuania, Luxemburg, and Uruguay—generated more than 30 percent. Uruguay is an energy transition rockstar because not only does it get nearly all of its electricity from renewables, but it does so using rising shares of wind and solar (not just hydro). 


Clean energy jobs

Let’s move on to a second indicator of the clean energy transition: jobs. Globally, renewable energy employment is a growing bet, having grown from 3 million jobs in 2009 to 11.5 million in 2019. This includes direct jobs in equipment manufacturing and sales, project development (e.g., being a solar installer), and operations and maintenance, as well as indirect jobs related to supplying the industry, like the labor required to make the steel for wind turbines, or renewables-related government or consulting jobs. Of the total renewable energy jobs in 2019, a third were in the PV solar sector (and a whopping 63 percent were in Asia).

Not surprisingly, given its dominance in renewable electricity generation, China is the clear king in the jobs arena as well: in 2019, it accounted for 38 percent of all renewable energy employment. The next-biggest powerhouses are India and the U.S., although the U.S. remains woefully behind in this area and will need massive federal support to catch up. The European Union had an estimated 1.3 million renewable energy jobs in 2018, led by Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Spain, and Poland.


EV markets

A final indicator of changes afoot in the world’s energy system is the shift to electric vehicles. In total, the number of passenger EVs globally reached 7.2 million in 2019, up 40 percent from the year before. Although they still represent less than 1 percent of the world’s passenger vehicles, the share of EVs in new car sales is rising quickly, hitting a record 2.5 percent in 2019 and continuing to grow despite the pandemic.

So who’s the EV world leader, by the numbers? You guessed it: China. In 2019, China was home to nearly half (47 percent) of all electric cars on the road globally, followed by Europe with about a quarter and the U.S. with around a fifth. China is also way ahead in the EV charging race, accounting for 80 percent of the new public fast EV chargers and for just over half of the new public slow chargers that entered the market in 2019. By one estimate, China was installing more than 1,000 EV charging stations per day.

When we look at which countries are selling the most EVs by share of the new car market, however, Scandinavia takes the (entire) cake. Norway is by far the world’s superstar in the overall share of EVs in new car sales (a fact that GM’s superbowl ad calls out hilariously). Two out of every three people in Norway are buying an EV—blowing away other countries with high EV shares, like Iceland (a 25 percent share), the Netherlands (15 percent), and Sweden (11 percent). By comparison, the EV market share in the U.S. was only 1.8 percent in 2020. In a possible sign of things to come, however, it nearly doubled to 2.5 percent in December.

Expanding the transition

It’s clear that some countries are making major strides in their energy transitions, and, globally, we’re in the midst of an unprecedented shift in how we produce and use energy. Now it’s time to step up the pace, not just in key (heavily polluting) countries like the U.S., but also in energy-guzzling sectors beyond just electric power. We’ve barely made a dent in the shift to clean energy in the heating and cooling sector, even though it accounts for more than half of the world’s final energy use, and progress in transport is also lagging. Fortunately, we’ve got the know-how and the role models to get things moving—so let’s do it. 


Moving beyond fossil fuel cars

February 17, 2021

This article is from the February 17, 2021, issue of Flip the Script, a weekly newsletter moving you from climate stress to clean energy action. Sign up here to get it in your inbox (and share the link with a friend).

There are a number of good reasons why Biden is making electric vehicles an early priority in his administration. Investing in EVs will bring American jobs and innovation, while also addressing a massive emissions problem: Transportation is the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. (accounting for 28% of all emissions). While the transition to clean energy is making strong advances in the power sector, we need to move a hell of a lot faster on the transportation front. Electric vehicles (EVs) are a key solution for steering us away from fossil fuels, but they still only account for around 2 percent of new-car sales. To get where we need to be with electric mobility—and fast—we need to take even bolder steps.

Here’s an idea: maybe we need to… take gas- (and diesel-) powered cars out of the equation altogether—while making it cheaper and easier to go electric. Sound impossible? Think again: around the world, countries, states, and cities have taken steps to do exactly that (including China, Germany, and Japan). As more zero-emission vehicles arrive on dealership lots, banning fossil fuel cars may be just the kind of bold market-signaling action that’s needed to push the U.S. to a safer, healthier, cleaner future.

Timeline of countries banning fossil fuel powered vehicles
Click on the image to take a look at Business Insider’s timeline showing who’s ditching gas cars (and when)


What does it mean to ban fossil fuel cars?

At its simplest, banning fossil fuel cars means that national, state, or local laws restrict vehicles that burn gasoline and/or diesel in a certain place by a certain date. The ban can apply to a whole country or to a single city or district.

For example, a ban could mean that manufacturers and dealers are prohibited from the import, sale, or registration of new fossil fuel vehicles after a specific date (while existing internal combustion vehicles can still ply the roads). Other bans are geared more toward keeping polluting vehicles out of certain areas like the main downtown zone.

For governments, banning fossil fuel vehicles is attractive because it offers a pretty clear-cut way to reduce emissions and meet climate commitments. Other good reasons for getting rid of gas and diesel cars include reducing the health risks associated with tailpipe emissions (notably particulate matter and nitrogen oxides) and achieving greater energy independence by not having to import oil products.

High-level commitments

Laws to move beyond gas cars are increasingly popular—including in some of the world’s biggest auto markets. So far, at least eighteen countries, states and provinces have committed to banning sales of fossil fuel vehicles (mainly cars and buses) by 2050 or before. The list includes China, Germany, Japan, and most Scandinavian countries. In many places, the bans are just one tool for eventually achieving a zero-emission future. The UK, in its ambition to be carbon-neutral by 2050, recently moved up its ban on sales of new gasoline or diesel cars by a full decade, from 2040 to 2030.

At least eighteen countries, states and provinces have committed to banning sales of fossil fuel vehicles (mainly cars and buses) by 2050 or before.

The U.S. hasn’t come close to any such commitments—but it’s inching nearer. In his first week in office, President Biden announced that the federal government will start phasing out its use of gas-powered vehicles and replace its entire fleet of 645,000 cars and trucks with U.S.-made EVs—a move that would boost the total number of EVs in the country by at least 40 percent. Bolder proposals are also making the rounds: in 2019, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) outlined a plan to replace every gas-powered car on the road with an electric one by 2040, and the more recent Zero-Emission Vehicles Act of 2020 would require all new cars sold in the country to be zero-emission by 2035.

A few states have gotten in on the action. In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order requiring all sales of new passenger cars and trucks in California to be zero-emission by 2035. Other states have issued similar plans in the past year, including Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. Governors, like Colorado’s Jared Polis, are clear about the benefits they stand to gain from these plans: “This roadmap is a significant step forward to continue to reduce pollution for the benefit of the health and well-being of our communities and our economy.”

Cities taking the lead

Globally, action at the city level has been faster and “furious-er” (okay, worth a try), with the focus being on stopping people from using fossil fuel vehicles. By the end of 2019, at least 35 major cities (many in Europe) had plans to ban or heavily restrict the use of diesel cars and trucks, while some cities are phasing out all vehicles that have internal combustion engines. In a novel approach, Reykjavik, Iceland plans to slash the number of city gas stations by half by 2025 to deter people from driving conventional vehicles.

In the U.S., a handful of cities are taking similar steps. Los Angeles, through its Green New Deal, hopes to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, which includes upping the share of EVs in the city to 100 percent. Seattle aspires to fully electrify its Metro bus fleet by 2035, and New York City issued an executive order in early 2020 calling for a 100 percent electric, carbon-neutral city fleet by 2040. Six U.S. cities—Austin, Honolulu, L.A., Santa Monica, Seattle, and West Hollywood—are also among the 35 signatories of the Fossil Fuel Free Streets Declaration, a non-binding global pledge to ban fossil fuel vehicles on some or all city streets by 2030.

Getting into the (fossil-free) zone

Cities worldwide have rules banning drivers of fossil fuel vehicles from entering the city center or other zones, while allowing in folks that drive low- or zero-emission vehicles. The main goal of these efforts is to improve local air quality, but they also help push residents to go electric. As of 2020, there were at least 250 “low-emission zones” in European cities and around two dozen elsewhere, including in Beijing, Hong Kong, Jerusalem and Tokyo. Some cities, instead of full-time restrictions, issue temporary bans on polluting vehicles during periods of heavy smog, like Rome was forced to do in January 2020. Although temporary bans don’t directly contribute to phasing out fossil fuel vehicles, they make owning and driving them less attractive.

As of 2020, there were at least 250 “low-emission zones” in European cities and around two dozen elsewhere, including in Beijing, Hong Kong, Jerusalem and Tokyo.

The U.S. doesn’t have any designated low-emission zones—yet. However, L.A. is planning one for 2030, and Santa Monica, California is piloting the country’s first “zero-emission delivery zone” in a one-square-mile area of its main shopping and dining corridor. Although the project is only voluntary for now, the city is encouraging any deliveries of goods that occur in the zone—from food takeout to packages—to be transported in a zero-emission vehicle, like an electric delivery van, hydrogen fuel cell truck, or e-cargo bike. (Some other U.S. cities, like New York, use tools like congestion pricing to deter people from driving in high-traffic areas, but this isn’t the same as an actual vehicle ban.)

Industry’s response, and moving forward

Partly in response to the clear market signals that worldwide bans are providing, automakers are shifting away from conventional gas-guzzling offerings and introducing a wide range of EV models. In January, General Motors became the first major U.S. automaker to pledge to stop making gasoline and diesel light-duty cars and SUVs altogether by 2035 (an about-face from just months ago). As more manufacturers start electrifying pick-ups and SUVs—the most popular car types in the U.S.—bans on the sale and use of fossil fuel vehicles could start to seem a lot more palatable in the country.

The bottom line, however, is that automakers know where the industry is headed. “We’re not going to cede the future to anyone,” Ford’s CEO told CNBC last Friday. As society looks to employ the strategies that will get us to this electric endpoint the quickest, bans on last century’s technology should be part of the discussion.


Bigger, better, faster: clean tech’s explosive growth

February 10, 2021

This article is from the February 10, 2021, issue of Flip the Script, a weekly newsletter moving you from climate stress to clean energy action. Sign up here to get it in your inbox (and share the link with a friend).

We’re just weeks into this hopeful new chapter for the climate and clean energy movement. The winter of denial and self-destructive behavior is over, spring is (figuratively) here. On good days, we can feel the wind in our sails. On bad days, the necessary scope and speed of the energy transition still feels pretty daunting. Here’s an important truth nugget worth holding on to:

The pace of progress we’re seeing in energy today isn’t anything like last century’s progress.

Clean energy tech is moving fast. It turns out that harvesting unlimited, ubiquitous energy sources like sunshine and wind enables you to progress more at the exponential pace that Moore’s law and Wright’s law predict. We’re talking about the rate of growth that computers and genetics saw in the latter half of last century. We’re now entering new frontiers that were unimaginable even a decade ago.

Here’s a sampling of a few of the game-changing innovations coming down the pipe. In the words of Samuel L. Jackson’s timeless Jurassic Park character, “hold on to your butts.”


Wind mega-machines and robotic helpers

 The future of wind power is increasingly offshore, where there’s plenty of space to harness the strong, steady breezes that sweep across our oceans and bays. Industry players are ramping up their game, producing new wind turbines that are bigger and more powerful than ever before. In Europe, GE is currently testing the largest offshore turbine ever built, the Haliade-X, with a turning diameter longer than two football fields and a height that’s taller than most buildings. The turbines are being built out of carbon fiber and glass fiber, a combination that makes them lightweight but still strong and flexible.

These mega-machines can pump out unimaginable power. A single turbine alone will have a generating capacity of 13 megawatts, making it about a third more powerful than the largest turbines now available commercially (and 30 times more powerful than the first offshore turbines installed off Denmark in the early 1990s).

In Europe, GE is currently testing the largest offshore turbine ever built, the Haliade-X, with a turning diameter longer than two football fields.

To put this in context, a single Haliade-X unit can generate enough energy to light up around 12,000 homes, and a large array of the turbines could potentially power an entire city. According to one analyst, the turbine’s size and advance sales have “shaken the industry.” Already GE has signed contracts to use the machines in projects off New Jersey and Massachusetts.

Also helping to propel the offshore wind industry are smaller but equally mind-blowing technologies like the new “BladeBUG” robot, which will make it safer and cheaper to maintain turbines that are located out at sea in choppy and unpredictable conditions. The robot, which has been described as “a suitcase that sprouted six legs with suction cup feet,” can be carried by drone to a turbine, where it crawls over the tower and blades and uses sensors to detect (and in some cases repair) issues with the machine’s efficiency. BladeBUG is undergoing commercial trials and is expected to hit the market in 2022. (Sounds like the sentinel robots from the Matrix, but on the good team).

Yes, they’re floating on water

Floating solar islands and hyper-efficient panels

Imagine solar panels on water producing energy and freeing up limited (and often costly) space on land. It’s already happening: More than 60 countries are actively pursuing floating solar photovoltaics (PV) in reservoirs and oceans, and other water bodies. Analysts call it “the third pillar” of solar after ground-mounted and rooftop PV. Although the first floating PV system was installed in Japan in 2007, recent innovations have made the technology more viable, including more durable platforms and new hybrid systems combining floating PV with hydropower dams.

The potential applications of floating PV go beyond just supplying power to homes and industries on shore. Developers are considering new models for using the electricity generated from the systems to support ocean-based activities like offshore fish farming, ocean observation, water desalination, and disaster recovery efforts. In Thailand, proposals to combine maritime fish and shrimp farms with floating PV systems would replace the polluting diesel generators. Floating solar PV has the potential to be more efficient than land-based solar panels because the cooling effect of water and wind can lead to increased energy yield.

Other efficiency breakthroughs are also coming down the PV pipeline. Today’s solar panels, while modern marvels in their own right, only convert around 15-20 percent of the sun’s energy that falls on them into electricity (essentially just the “red” part of the light spectrum). But developers are now working to realize greater efficiency by also tapping into “blue” wavelengths, which can increase the overall conversion efficiency to 30-40 percent. The panels are currently entering production and could be available for use on consumer rooftops within the next few years.

Needless to say, with so much amazing tech coming our way, it’s hard not be optimistic about clean energy in 2021. And increasingly, we have both the political leadership and the business support to make it happen. In a recent opinion piece, the BBC’s Tom Heap mused that “applied human intelligence is the vaccine against climate change.” As we continue to harness our insatiable capacity for progress and innovation, we can look forward to the day when we are all inoculated from the ills of fossil fuels.


What’s hope got to do with it? Emotion’s role in acting on climate change

February 3, 2021

This article is from the February 3, 2021, issue of Flip the Script, a weekly newsletter moving you from climate stress to clean energy action. Sign up here to get it in your inbox (and share the link with a friend).

Coronavirus, climate change, ongoing racial injustice. We humans are grappling with some heavy stuff (and that’s just naming a few).

But pair that list with what else we know: People are getting the vaccine. Climate solutions are here. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it is bending toward justice (to quote Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.). That doesn’t tell the whole story, of course, but hearing it makes the heavy stuff feel just a little lighter, right?

While the behavioral science research on the subject isn’t quite that simple, this exercise helps illustrate what the experts know: Words, stories, and images elicit emotions. And feelings like fear, despair, hope, awe, and pride all play a role in how we feel and think about problems—and whether or not we are inspired to act on them.

At Generation180, we’re focused on inspiring people to act on clean energy. To better understand how emotions play a role in motivating action, we interviewed social scientist Ezra Markowitz, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, to talk about his work on environmental decision-making and communication. Here is that interview, edited for length and clarity. Enjoy!

Dr. Ezra Markowitz
Dr. Markowitz is an interdisciplinary environmental social scientist and publicly engaged scholar interested in leveraging our understanding of human behavior to promote environmental sustainability and social well-being.


Generation180: What does “environmental decision-making” mean? 

EM: In the broadest sense, it refers to pretty much any action people take, individually or collectively, that impacts natural and built systems. This includes everything from everyday household choices that affect energy and water consumption (think: choice of light bulb, length of showers), to transportation mode choice, civic engagement, and activism oriented towards environmental sustainability or societal challenges (think: protesting, boycotting, writing letters to policymakers).

Generation180: Why is it essential to elicit a range of emotions — sadness and anger but also pride and hope — in order to inspire action, when it comes to climate change?

EM: We can’t expect everyone to respond to a complex, multifaceted problem like climate change in the same way emotionally, or even for the same person to have just one set of never-changing emotions about climate change. We need to engage the full suite of human emotions when communicating about climate change, allowing individuals and communities to respond in the ways that are most productive and supportive of meaningful, positive action for them.

Thoughtful man sitting watching the sunset.
Probably contemplating a lifetime of “environmental decision-making”

Research also shows that individuals are willing to take action—even if it requires some level of effort or sacrifice—in response to an array of emotions, such as awe, pride and anger. Eliciting negative emotions can grab someone’s attention but to sustain it over time, as in the case of social movements for example, positive emotions such as hope and gratitude need to be elicited too.

Generation180: What are some of the most effective stories to tell about climate change if you want to motivate people to act?

EM: Effective stories are ones that find a way to meaningfully and honestly weave together what we know from climate science—including our best predictions of what the future could look like—with the narratives and experiences that already resonate with, and oftentimes come directly from, our audiences. It’s about working with your audience to identify what aspects of climate change can be integrated into their existing ways of understanding the world around them, and providing a new, yet relatable, lens through which to reassess what they know.

This means finding and working with the metaphors and idioms, widely shared cultural models, values, and interpretations of lived experiences that people already hold and use in their daily lives. For example, using the language of self-reliance and renewal to talk about clean energy technologies can help some people and communities see them as opportunities to be pursued rather than mandates being forced upon them by others for ideological reasons.

Generation180: Our mission is to equip and inspire people to take action on clean energy. We want to shift the conversation from one of helplessness and apathy to hope and action. Do you have advice on how we can achieve this, based on your research?

EM: Despite the deep political polarization that surrounds climate change and nearly every other major societal issue we face in the U.S., clean energy projects and policies are relatively free of the political baggage that has slowed large-scale action on climate change over the past two decades (e.g., putting a price on carbon). People across the US tend to view clean energy technologies very positively and, by-and-large, want the energy grid to move towards them aggressively.

Clean energy projects and policies are relatively free of the political baggage that has slowed large-scale action on climate change over the past two decades.

Now that many renewables and other clean energy technologies are at, or in some cases, are below price parity with fossil fuel sources (at least in most parts of the country), I think there will be even more enthusiasm for moving to expand capacity quickly over the coming decade.

That isn’t to say there won’t be challenges and roadblocks from vested interests; and, it’s also important that clean energy advocates take seriously concerns about how a transition away from fossil fuels will negatively impact certain groups and communities within the U.S. That’s not just for people who work directly in fossil fuel extraction and refinement. Think, for example, about all of the car repair shops and gas stations, many of which are small businesses owned by individuals or families, that will be forced to shift their business model as we move away from gasoline-burning vehicles. Integrating themes around improving public health, addressing existing and novel inequities, and making the energy system more reliable and resilient will be really important in maintaining and strengthening public support for the coming energy transition.

Generation180: Can you point to some specific examples, from your work or in the field, of effective communications efforts that yielded positive behavior change around climate?

A recent program from Inside the Greenhouse

EM: I think there is some great, innovative work going on these days in the climate communication arena, so I’ll just point to a couple. The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s How We Respond project brings together a diverse set of case studies and resources that are practically useful and inspiring, in part because they leverage local, relatable stories. Inside the Greenhouse, based out of the University of Colorado Boulder, is another group that I think does creative, evidence-informed climate communication work. The Center for Climate Change Communication out of George Mason University has done really exciting and innovative work helping TV weathercasters and journalists integrate climate change into their on-air segments. And of course there is a new generation of activists who are doing critical work to build a true social movement around climate change.


Ezra also makes a compelling case for pairing crisis narratives with solutions in a recent Washington Post oped co-authored with writer Lucia Graves: “Being bombarded with threatening information only produces positive outcomes when people are also given practical, meaningful ways to reduce the highlighted threat… Even when the path forward is difficult, solutions-oriented narratives and imagery offer a positive vision that can promote greater issue engagement, efficacy and large-scale public action,” he says.