Clean energy must be rolled out six times faster


The Emissions Gap Report published today by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) described the roll-out of renewable energy technology as an “easy win” in the battle to mitigate global heating but warned clean energy deployment needs to happen six times faster. Otherwise, stated the report, the world will have no hope of keeping temperatures less than 1.5 degrees Celsius hotter than in pre-industrial times.

Whereas the negligible mention of solar power in the party manifestos produced for the looming UK election is a concern, a similar neglect of the subject in this year’s issue of the annual UNEP report is quite the opposite, with the likes of PV, wind and biomass very much part of the mainstream energy mix.

The report notes the record 167 GW of renewable energy generation capacity deployed last year – including 108 GW of solar – and added the $273 billion invested in renewables was around three times more than was spent on coal and gas. However, the report notes, coal, oil and gas still meet 85% of the world’s energy needs.

On course for 3.2C

The headline finding of the report is as gloomy as ever, with the planet on course to be 3.2 degrees Celsius hotter under current policy commitments. Reducing the global temperature rise to a maximum 1.5 degrees Celsius will require greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – which have risen 1.5% annually in the decade during which the Emissions Gap Report has been published – to fall 7.6% per year for a decade.

In examining the emissions picture in individual nations, the document considers the state of solar. Lack of finance and poor grid infrastructure are delaying renewables capacity in Argentina, states the report, and Australia has been left with “no major policy tool to encourage emissions reductions from the electricity sector in the short-to-medium-term”, thanks to the abandonment last year of the National Energy Guarantee and the lack of raised renewables ambition from next year on. So much for easy wins.

Brazil is lauded for the 3.3 GW of solar deployed since 2015 even if president Jair Bolsonaro’s reckless Amazonian policy makes for grisly reading. India will miss its 175 GW 2022 renewables target thanks to inconsistent taxation and import duties and, similarly, Indonesia is expected to fall short of its 2025 renewables target of hitting 23% of the energy mix, thanks to its plans for new coal capacity.

Failings in Mexico, Saudi and the U.S.

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador comes in for particular criticism for energy sector reforms tilted towards the gas, coal and oil industries, including cancelling last year’s long-term energy auction and cutting renewables transmission lines.

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Saudi Arabia’s habit of talking big without delivering is also noted, in the form of delays to delivery of the Vision 2030 plan launched three years ago and to implementation of a 200 GW solar field backed by Japan’s SoftBank Group. The announcement yesterday of grid connection of the kingdom’s first solar project – the 300 MW Sakaka facility in Al Jawf – is unlikely to deter accusations of renewable energy tardiness in the petrostate.

The UN document takes an admirably dismissive attitude towards the current incumbent of the White House, noting President Trump’s policy direction against regulation of the power industry, acidly highlighting how ineffectual GHG reduction efforts will be compared to those of Barack Obama and adding: “Despite the Trump administration’s actions, market trends have resulted in a significant drop in emissions over the past decade”.

In terms of clean energy-related policy recommendations, Argentina is urged to support the roll-out of small-scale renewables systems; Japan is advised to come up with a plan for a carbon-free energy mix and the EU is urged to fine-tune its strategy; and Brazil, China, and India are all asked to step up their electric vehicle initiatives. The call for the U.S. to implement clean energy standards and introduce carbon pricing for zero-carbon energy is presumably targeted below federal level, for now.

Africa offers hope

Away from the big polluters among the G20 group of industrialized nations, the Emissions Gap Report notes the increasingly widespread adoption of off-grid, often pay-as-you-go financed solar systems in sub-Saharan Africa but says much more could be done to incentivize business opportunities for domestic firms, given the manufacturing value has been had by China and financing and engineering has been claimed by businesses based in OECD nations.

National governments in the developing world have a role to play as well, though – along with multilateral development lenders – with the report highlighting the need for more stable investment environments to enable faster renewable energy use in such parts of the world.

The bottom line is that the world needs to do more, much more, and faster to avoid catastrophic climate change.

As UN secretary-general António Guterres remarked in the press release issued by the UN today to publicize the report: “For ten years, the Emissions Gap Report has been sounding the alarm – and for ten years, the world has only increased its emissions.”

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