Last updated on: 2/14/2024 | Author:

Whether alternative energy can meet energy demands effectively enough to phase out finite fossil fuels (such as coal, oil, and natural gas)  is hotly debated. Alternative energies include renewable sources–including solartidalwindbiofuelhydroelectric, and geothermal–and non-renewable nuclear power.

Globally, fossil fuels have been used for energy for much of human history. The Chinese were the first to transition to fossil fuels from wood fire energy. They used coal as early as 2000 BCE, natural gas since 200 BCE, and petroleum since the 1st century. Europeans developed hydropower in 200 BCE, and Persians developed windmills in the 10th century. The famed Dutch windmills wouldn’t be built until the 1590s. Read more history…


Pro & Con Arguments

Pro 1

Alternative energies not only can but must replace fossil fuels if we want to continue living on Earth.

While it may sound dramatic, the choice is between using alternative energies and your great-great-grandchildren inheriting an uninhabitable planet thanks to the continued use of fossil fuels.

Global warming will result in catastrophe if left unchecked by measures including a swift transition away from fossil fuels. [8]

Journalist Sarah Kaplan summarizes, “climate disasters will become so extreme that people will not be able to adapt. Basic components of the Earth system will be fundamentally, irrevocably altered. Heat waves, famines and infectious diseases could claim millions of additional lives by [the 21st] century’s end.” If we do nothing, “a child born today would live to see several feet of sea level rise, the extinction of hundreds of species and the migration of millions of people from places where they can no longer survive.” [8]

However, the solutions do not “depend on something that still needs to be invented. We actually have all the knowledge we need. All the tools we need. We just need to implement it,” says Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College London. [8]

The United Nations states simply, “energy is at the heart of the climate challenge – and key to the solution…. We need to end our reliance on fossil fuels and invest in alternative sources of energy that are clean, accessible, affordable, sustainable, and reliable.” [9]

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Pro 2

Many countries are already operating on significant renewable energy sources.

Renewable energy is “usable energy derived from replenishable sources such as the Sun (solar energy), wind (wind power), rivers (hydroelectric power), hot springs (geothermal energy), tides (tidal power), and biomass (biofuels),” according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. Fossil fuels (oil and coal, for example) and nuclear power (which relies on a non-renewable resource, uranium) are not renewable. [10]

Iceland was the first country to propose a shift to 100% renewable energy use in 1998. The country’s energy is now 85% domestically produced geothermal energy and hydropower. Fossil fuels, mainly oil used in transportation, accounted for just 15% of the country’s energy. [11]

And Iceland is not an outlier. Renewable energies account for significant portions of many countries’ energy production: Paraguay (99.9%), Costa Rica (99.78%), Norway (98%), Uruguay (98%), Democratic Republic of the Congo (96%+), Albania (96%), Nicaragua (81%), Kenya (80%), New Zealand (80%), Denmark (67%), Germany (46%), the United Kingdom (40%), and Morocco (37%). [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26][7][12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18][19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26]

Further, the industry is still innovating, making renewable energy adoption even easier. In addition to the traditional renewable energies that account for 68% of Sweden’s energy production, the country also uses “body heat”: “So-called passive houses are built without conventional heating systems and are kept warm by the heat given off by their occupants and electrical appliances. Sweden’s first passive house was completed in 2001. Since then, more buildings have followed. In Stockholm, the body heat from commuters passing through the central station is used to heat a nearby building, and in the southern town of Växjö, there are passive high-rises.” [27]

Renewable energies are already effectively replacing fossil fuels.

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Pro 3

Nuclear energy, a low-carbon source of alternative energy, is the quickest way to end dependence on fossil fuels.

“Advanced [nuclear] reactors can dependably generate zero-emission electricity and useful heat, and they are scalable to produce large quantities of energy from a very small footprint. New designs hold the promise of being more affordable, even safer, and are expected to produce less waste than the current generation of reactors,” explains Bob Perciasepe, President of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “To meet our climate and clean energy goals, we must seek stable solutions that endure political transitions and maintain an ambitious pace to reduce emissions.” [28]

To illustrate the need for nuclear power use, Germany and France are often compared. Germany, which relies on fossil fuels for 35% and renewables for 40% of energy consumption, emitted about 675 million tonnes of CO2 in 2021. France, which relies on nuclear power for 70% of energy consumption, emitted 305 million tonnes of CO2. While both carbon emissions rates are significantly lower than the American emissions of 5 billion tonnes, that France has 88% of Germany’s population but half the emissions rates shows the need for nuclear power to lower CO2 emissions. [29] [30] [31] [32]

Moreover, “nuclear plants require far less land than renewables. Even in sunny California, a solar farm requires 450 times more land to produce the same amount of energy as a nuclear plant… Nuclear requires far less in the way of materials, and produces far less in the way of waste compared to… solar and wind,” explains Michael Shellenberger, Cofounder of Breakthrough Institute and founder of Environmental Progress. [29]

Nuclear power is clearly an effective way of lowering carbon emissions and slowing global warming. At this point in the climate crisis, we ignore nuclear power at our peril.

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Con 1

Natural gas, a fossil fuel, is an appropriate and necessary bridge fuel to meet net-zero emissions goals.

The assertion that we must transition to alternative energies now or face the imminent demise of the planet has kneecapped the implementation of a realistic and immediate improvement to the environment. Yes, greenhouse gas emissions must be lowered if Earth is to remain habitable, but we are already equipped to use natural gas, which is cleaner than coal, moving us toward a net zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions goal. Without gas, we are left without an existing infrastructure, and we will fail to meet our clean-energy goals. [33]

“The clearest case for switching from coal to gas comes when there is the possibility to use existing infrastructure to provide the same energy services but with lower emissions,” says the International Energy Agency. “Given the time it takes to build up new renewables and to implement energy efficiency improvements, this also represents a potential quick win for emissions reductions. There is potential in today’s power sector to reduce up to 1.2 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions by switching from coal to existing gas-fired plants…. The vast majority of this potential lies in the United States and in Europe. Doing so would bring down global power sector emissions by 10% and total energy-related CO2 emissions by 4%.” [34]

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported a 1% drop in CO2 emissions in 2022 as a result of the ongoing switch from coal to natural gas. [35]

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Con 2

The idea that renewable energies will fill the energy needs of large countries any time soon is counterproductive and hinders realistic change for the better.

“Humanity’s history is full of energy transitions that moved from one dominant source of energy, such as whale oil or timber, to a more efficient source over time,” states Cornelis van Kooten, professor of economics, University of Victoria. “The difference now is that governments want to force the transition on an expedited timeline while optimistically assuming a technological breakthrough in the future.” Realistic policies and interim steps are critical to affecting positive climate change. [36]

American renewable energy use has hovered between a low of 5.37% (in 2001) and a high of 11.44% (in 2019) since 1949. And nuclear energy, not used until 1959, topped out at 8.89% in 2002. In all, alternative energy use in the United States (the total use of both renewable sources and nuclear energy) has never topped 20% (the highest is 19.98% in 2017) of total energy use. [37]

Further, international agreements have failed to put a dent in America’s fossil fuel use. In the eight years since the U.S. signed the Paris Agreement in 2015 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, American fossil fuel use has only minimally fluctuated between a high of 81.22% (in 2015) and a low of 73.08% (in 2020). [37]

With only some 25 years until the 2050 net-zero emissions deadline, no statistical increase in the use of alternative energies, and no clear policy changes, how can we expect alternative energies to replace fossil fuels?

What’s needed instead are reasonable interim steps, not pie-in-the-sky policy-making. Responsible programs, perhaps in conjunction with the use of cleaner bridge energies such as natural gas, can better assist larger countries down the road to cleaner energy use.

With doomsday-like predictions looming about climate change, “it’s essential to focus on the realistic, broad-based approaches that are already advancing environmental progress,” says Sam Winstel, writer for the American Petroleum Institute. [38]

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Con 3

Nuclear energy is too dangerous and ineffective to be a serious antidote to global warming.

While there have been only two “major” nuclear accidents–Fukushima Daiichi in Japan and Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union–nuclear reactors have been melting down since their inception. And, with increasingly volatile climate conditions caused by global warming, nuclear accidents caused by natural disasters like the earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima can be expected to rise. [39] [40]

In addition to being ineffective, nuclear power is dangerous. The possibilities of nuclear weapon proliferation haunts the power source because the same technology is used for nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Additionally, there is the problem of where to dispose of radioactive nuclear waste. Nuclear power plant meltdowns are linked to deaths, radiation sickness, increased rates of cancer, depression, alcoholism, and suicide, as well as severe environmental destruction. [40] [41]

“In the months after the [Fukushima] accident, all nuclear reactors in Japan were shuttered indefinitely, eliminating production of almost all of the country’s carbon-free electricity and about 30 percent of its total electricity production. Naturally, carbon emissions rose, and future emissions-reduction targets were slashed…. [However] eight years after Fukushima… fewer than 10 of Japan’s 50 reactors have resumed operations, yet the country’s carbon emissions have dropped below their levels before the accident. How? Japan has made significant gains in energy efficiency and solar power. It turns out that relying on nuclear energy is actually a bad strategy for combating climate change: One accident wiped out Japan’s carbon gains. Only a turn to renewables and conservation brought the country back on target.” explains Gregory Jaczko, former Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). [42]

“The real choice now is between saving the planet or saving the dying nuclear industry. I vote for the planet,” concludes Jaczko. [42]

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