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Earth Day 2024: A Look at 3 Places Adapting Quickly to Fight Climate Change

ScienceEarth Day 2024: A Look at 3 Places Adapting Quickly to Fight Climate Change

Glaciers are shrinking, coral reefs are in crisis and last year was the hottest on record. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, have passed a dangerous new threshold as people continue to burn fossil fuels. Is anyplace making progress on climate change?

The short answer is: It’s complicated, but yes.

In South America, one country has pivoted in less than a decade to generating almost all its electricity from a diverse mix of renewables. In China, an electric car that costs just $5,000 is suddenly one of the biggest sellers. Paris is transforming itself into a city of bikes.

Steps like these, taken individually, aren’t enough to avoid the most serious consequences of climate change — worsening droughts, intensified storms and human suffering. Still, they show how some places are pulling off significant local changes very quickly.

Globally, “we’re not moving as fast as we need to,” said Thomas Spencer, an analyst at the International Energy Agency. “But we definitely have the tools to go much faster.”

“Climate solutions actually do exist. They’re here now,” said Jonathan Foley, the executive director of Project Drawdown, a nonprofit organization focused on climate action.

To mark Earth Day (and to try to reach young, environmentally-minded voters) President Biden is promoting a new national program to train and employ people in climate-related jobs, and reminding voters of the clean-energy investments underway following the Inflation Reduction Act.

These programs are just getting started, but around the world, there are places where climate solutions have become ubiquitous parts of everyday life.

Uruguay, a nation of 3.4 million people wedged between Argentina and Brazil, generates nearly all its electricity from renewable sources. In 2008, the government set a goal of transforming the electric grid, which had come to depend on imported oil.

The country had a lot of hydropower, but years of drought in the 1990s and 2000s slashed the dams’ output. Uruguay was forced to import oil instead, at volatile prices, and faced shortages and blackouts. Officials noted the increasing cost competitiveness of renewables, especially wind, and set out to build a local wind industry nearly from scratch.

Between 2013 and 2018, wind generation grew sharply from almost nothing to about a quarter of Uruguay’s electricity mix. By the end of 2022, the most recent year data is available, Uruguay generated more than 90 percent of its power from renewables, with wind and solar growing even as hydropower declined.

This small nation represents one especially fast example of the massive growth of renewable energy globally.

Electricity and heat together are the biggest source of humans’ greenhouse gas emissions. But in “many, many countries now,” renewables are growing faster than electricity demand and displacing fossil fuels from the power sector, said Bill Hare, C.E.O. and senior scientist at Climate Analytics, an international climate science and policy organization. “That has got the most potential in the next five years to get us onto a one and a half degree pathway and anything close to it.”

Transportation is the second biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Electric car sales have grown exponentially over the past decade, and China is by far the largest market for these vehicles. About 7.3 million battery electric vehicles were sold around the world in 2022, according to the International Energy Agency. More than half of these cars, about 4.4 million, were sold in China.

Historically, megacities like Shanghai have driven this trend. But in recent years China’s smaller cities have started taking up a larger share of the market. In 2022, the two cities where electric vehicles made up the largest percentage of total new car registrations were Sanya, a city of beach resorts on Hainan Island, and Liuzhou, an industrial hub in southern China. Battery electric vehicles accounted for about 40 percent of new vehicles registrations in both cities, far above the national average of 19 percent, according to a recent report by the International Council on Clean Transportation.

Electric vehicles’ success in China has hinged partially on policy, and partially on sheer convenience and affordability. The most popular electric car in China is currently the Hongguang Mini, a tiny two-door model that costs about $5,000. It’s manufactured by the three-way international joint venture SAIC-GM-Wuling, in the factories of Liuzhou.

Some cities are trying not just to electrify cars, but to replace as many of them as possible with cleaner forms of transportation, like bicycles. In 2021, officials in Paris announced a plan to make their city “100 percent cycle-friendly” in the next five years.

Paris was already on a yearslong journey to do away with cars in the city center, or at least to reduce their numbers. Between 2001 and 2018, the number of car trips taken in Paris fell by 60 percent. Over that same period, public transit trips increased by 40 percent and bicycle trips by 20 percent.

Cycling has boomed even more in recent years, spurred in part by new bike lanes set up during the coronavirus pandemic, nicknamed “coronapistes,” or “corona lanes.” The percentage of trips taken by bicycle within Paris more than doubled between 2020 and 2024, from 5 to 11 percent, according to the Paris Region Institute, an urban planning agency that works for cities around Europe.

Paris currently has more than 1,000 kilometers of bike lanes, and will get 180 more under the current plan, along with tens of thousands of bicycle parking spots and new traffic light patterns that prioritize cyclists and public transit.

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