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Netting Zero Series: Making 2021 the Year We Break Fossil Fuel Addiction

“The Covid-19 crisis has collapsed the demand for energy, which could mean multi-decade lows in the consumption of oil, coal and gas. How do we seize this shock to break the global addiction to fossil fuels once and for all?”  – Ivan Penn, Energy Correspondent for the New York Times.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Covid-19 outbreak caused a collapse in energy demand seven times greater than the global financial crisis in 2008. This was as severe as the plunge in energy demand during the Second World War, causing multi-decade lows for the world’s consumption of oil, gas and coal. However, through these hardships, renewable energy demand continued to grow.

This sudden decline in fossil fuel consumption, and steady rise of renewable energy indicates that renewable energy will continue to play an increasingly large role in the global energy system. According to IEA’s Global Energy Review 2020, renewable electricity generation increased by almost 1% in 2020 mainly due to wind and solar photovoltaics (often shortened as PV) projects completed. 1.

This change in the energy system, with the renewables stepping up their share of demand has been noticeable. “How do we accelerate the rise in renewables to meet urgent global demand during the recovery?” and “How will businesses with global operations adapt to support this transformation?” asks Ivan Penn in the 5th episode of New York Times series, “Making 2021 the Year We Break Fossil Fuel Addiction.” 

The event took place on Tuesday,  January 19th 2021. The goal of the discussion was to bring solutions to the forefront and create the conditions for informed conversation on climate action. The conversation was moderated by Ivan Penn, an energy correspondent for The New York Times. The questions focused primarily on what it would take to achieve  Net Zero emissions  globally by 2050, and how to accelerate this  transition to renewable sources. The panelists invited on this episode work in different industries, addressing issues around climate change. They come with different perspectives and experiences so that we are able to see the whole picture, and consider everyone’s input when thinking about solutions.



According to Nigel Topping, the High Level Champion for Climate Action COP26, there needs to be serious calls for drastic actions in order to achieve SDG7 ahead of  COP26.  According to Topping, “We are in a race that requires to really aggressively break the addiction from fossil fuels, as a major source of energy to zero source of energy.” He emphasized that the damage of not dealing with this crisis will be very high and far outweigh the costs of acting and that the longer we wait to achieve Net Zero, the more environmental damage and human suffering we will cause. He commented that technological advancement and political motivation, especially with a push from motivated youth “rising up to express their reasonable demand with both rage and hope,” is making a difference.

A successful transition requires more than just a technical approach. According to Jessica O. Matthews, Founder and C.E.O of Uncharted Power, we should also think about “environmental justice perspectives and activism”.  Transitioning to lower carbon sources will produce winners and losers. The winners are those who will benefit from cleaner sources of energy and reduced emissions, and the losers are those who will bear the burden and lack access to these opportunities. Attention needs to be given to the vulnerable populations affected by this transition, with policy recommendations that would not disrupt their daily lives.

Jessica O. Matthews states that the more we think about the people who are experiencing climate change as “a life or death situation today,” the more we realize that this conversation is not about what is important but what is urgent. If we want to see change as quickly as possible, then we need to also frame the conversation in a way that makes it accessible to different  audiences.

According to Meredith Adler, Executive Director of Student Energy,  strategies and training programs need to be developed to actively involve millions of climate-engaged youth into this sector and to strengthen this political will to address relevant issues.  

Meredith Adler states that since the average age of every sector is about 55 and those working in the clean energy sectors are overwhelmingly white men, there is a massive opportunity when transitioning to clean energy. “The training programs are really falling short of getting young people, especially diverse young people, into this sector and helping them see themselves as part of the solutions.” 

Student Energy’s contribution

Student Energy is a global youth-led organization empowering young people to accelerate the sustainable energy transition through a variety of initiatives, including university-based Chapters, a digital Energy System Map, and the largest student-led energy conference in the world. Meredith Adler explains that at Student Energy “a lot of what we are working on today is bridging the gap between governments, companies and young people, and helping young people identify how to leverage youth innovation & make youth engagement a priority as we move forward.” 

Furthermore, Student Energy works with a network of 50,000 young people from over 120 countries.  It serves to strengthen the engagement of youth in the context of renewable energy by making sure “young people have hands-on training experience and they see themselves completing successful projects and believing themselves as entrepreneurs or innovators.” 

The key role of youth in energy transition

Climate change is a complex issue with a complex list of challenges. Meredith Adler states that “youth do not have the power, the money and the resources that a lot of other actors have”.  But, what companies, organizations, and governments can do is “ work concurrently, hand in hand with young people to help them be part of the solutions and help foster the innovation that really comes from multiple generations working together.”

Meredith Adler indicates that “youth are often misbranded especially in the corporate world as an adversarial force, but what they are looking for is the opportunity to be part of the solution. The energy sector is incredibly complex and the solutions have to be community based, young people are in the best position to do that”. Youth play a key role in this global energy transformation. It is imperative that they are included in the decision making process, in advocacy for renewable energy in their respective communities, and are informed and up-to-date of the latest developments in the renewable energy sector. Student Energy intends to do exactly that.

Netting Zero is a virtual event series on climate change presented by The New York Times. The series will continue as we approach the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow on November1-12, 2021. 

Learn more about upcoming New York Times events: