It's something of an uncomfortable fact that civilized society is almost completely reliant upon fossil fuels for nearly every aspect of its existence. While fossil fuels have been integral in the development of most industrial nations, there are a few realities of using them that society needs to come to terms with. There are many arguments in favor of society's need for renewable energy.
Fossil Fuels Are a Finite Resource
Whether you believe there are hundreds of years or just a few decades left of this resource, the fact remains that it is a finite resource. At some point, fossil fuels are going to either be gone or they are going to become too expensive to realistically use.
To some, this is a problem that the "market" should figure out. That is, when fossil fuels become too expensive to use people will just start using something else. Though this may work well in theory, the reality is that shifting from fossil fuels is not the same as shifting from one brand of shampoo to another. You can't just "stop using" fossil fuels when they become too expensive.
This is due entirely to the fact that humans rely so much on the infrastructure they have developed-- an infrastructure which is entirely reliant upon this one resource, accounting for 85 percent of the United States's energy. If the world was entirely reliant upon solar energy, that would be fine because sunlight is a perpetual resource. However, at the current state of things, humanity is in a dangerous position due to its complete reliance upon one single finite input.
Fossil Fuels Contribute to Climate Change
While there are some who will say that "the science is still out" on climate change, it's a fact that the climate is changing and that fossil fuel emissions are contributing greatly to that change.
By contrast, solar energy panels and wind turbines generate zero emissions in their generation of electricity. However, the manufacturing process by which the components of these renewable energy systems are created is entirely reliant on fossil fuel inputs. This stands as an even more poignant example of the necessity of renewable energy development. Society can benefit not only from shifting electricity generation off of a finite resource, but it can also benefit from shifting its manufacturing system away from them.
Renewable Energy Is Democratic
As it stands, when a person wants electricity they are forced to purchase it from someone else. The average person does not have access to coal mining equipment or coal-fired power plants to make their own electricity. However, the average person does have access to the sun.
While renewable energy systems on a large scale are an important step for keeping national and international infrastructures intact, it's also important to understand the scalability of renewable energy solutions. The average person who can't afford their own coal-powered power plant is generally capable of purchasing a home solar array or small wind turbine. When individuals are able to own the equipment that generates their electricity, that means that they don't have to rely on fluctuating prices or shortages from outside energy producers.
Also, renewables can often be gathered cleanly and safely in local or regional communities due to the wide availability of the inputs. This means that national manufacturing and energy rates aren't dependent upon prices set by unstable foreign markets.
Renewable Energy Is Economically Sound
By recent Greenpeace estimates, the world could save around $180 billion a year by switching 70% of the planet's electricity production to renewable options. While this alone is an excellent economic argument in favor of renewable energy, the truth is that the sheer savings involved aren't the only economic factors that support the use of renewable energy as a positive way forward. Some local markets are already starting to gain access to renewable energy options in their local power grid that have them saving more money than with traditional fossil fuel sources.
When other economic indicators like employment are considered, the use of renewable energy becomes even more attractive. In Germany, nearly one quarter of national energy demand is met by renewable resources. This has led to an increase in employment within the energy sector by nearly 380,000 new jobs. It's reasonable to conclude that this trend will be continuing into the future as renewable energy investment continues to rise around the world.
Renewable Energy Is Generally Better for the Environment
In 2014, carbon dioxide accounted for just over 80% of the greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. Fossil fuels are also responsible for a significant amount of land, water, and air pollution beyond their CO2 production. For example, coal mining brings solid wastes to the surface that would normally remain underground and the areas around a mine can remain barren for generations if due to the lack of proper topsoil. The burning of coal for energy also produces many different types of particulate matter that pollute the air. The finest of these particles can be inhaled deeply and cause various respiratory health problems in people living around the power plant. These pollutants make their way into the water cycle and fall the the ground as acid rain, which can destroy land and pollute large bodies of water.
Renewable energy sources are not without their environmental impacts. Wind turbines can impact migrating bird species and dams can severely disrupt the ecology of surrounding areas. There is also an argument that renewable energy options are not as efficient as fossil fuels; however this is purely an economic argument. When one factors in the various non-financial costs of fossil fuel use such as pollution, climate change, and the impact on biodiversity, renewable energy is actually far more efficient than fossil fuels.
Renewable Energy Makes Sense
There are a lot of good reasons to move toward the use of renewable energy both now and in the future. However, the most powerful of these arguments is simply that at some point you will no longer have the option. Whether it's you specifically or your grandchildren, fossil fuels will be left behind at some point. The question now is whether society wants to transition away from fossil fuels on its own terms or be forced into it by desperate necessity sometime down the line.