In North Dakota, the construction of an oil pipeline under a river that supplies drinking water to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe has created a 19th-century-style showdown over territorial lands and treaty rights. Renewable energy optimists might argue that confrontations over efforts to tap and move fossil fuel represent misplaced energy at a time when the United States could be making deeper investments in alternative sources that would make such conflicts anachronistic.
That position received some support from the International Energy Agency, which reported on Oct. 25 that renewable energy surpassed coal in 2015 as the largest source of installed power capacity in the world. The agency also bumped up its five-year growth forecast for renewables by 13 percent because of stronger backing for renewables in the United States, China, India and Mexico and significant decreases in the cost of renewable infrastructure. It expects renewable sources to produce nearly 30 percent of the global electricity supply by 2021. These developments suggest the practical timetable for a transition to renewable energy—which could significantly mitigate the effects of climate change—may be accelerating. The argument that renewable sources are unreliable or too costly seems increasingly thin in the face of such rapid real-world adjustments.
China, fighting a profound air pollution problem in its major cities, is increasing its renewable energy at twice the rate of the United States. It will have the edge in renewable technology and commercial production unless Washington wakes up to the challenge and the opportunities of this evolving energy landscape. Instead of becoming bogged down in fights about pipelines, state and national policymakers should focus on advancing the coming transition to renewable energy sources