The remarkable rise
of renewable power

Momentum of renewable power continues

Renewable energy has cemented its position as the dominant source for power capacity worldwide, thanks in large part to sustained policy support and cost reductions. In 2019, a record 200 gigawatts (GW) of renewable power capacity was added, more than three times the level of fossil fuel and nuclear capacity. Over 27% of global electricity now comes from renewables, up from 19% in 2010. The share of solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power has grown more than five times since 2009 – a remarkable rise attributed largely to continued cost declines for these technologies.

New solar PV and wind plants are now being installed at a lower cost than to run existing coal and gas power plants. An increasing number of jurisdictions have shown that variable sources of renewable electricity can be integrated into the grid at scale. Four countries – Denmark, Uruguay, Ireland and Germany – derived more than 30% of their electricity from solar PV and wind in 2019.

An increasingly global trend mobilising all actors

Renewable power is growing in all corners of the world. By the end of 2019, 47 countries across 6 continents, including several emerging economies, had at least 1 GW of solar PV and wind power in operation, compared to just 18 countries in 2009. On average, 1 GW of solar PV or wind power is enough to cover the electricity demand of nearly 150,000 European households.

A social revolution is under way: people around the world are demanding more action on climate change, and 1,480 jurisdictions in 28 countries have declared a “climate emergency”. Public opinion polls worldwide have shown that people are in favour of using more renewables and are increasingly aware of the multiple benefits that renewable energy brings in terms of health, jobs, resilience and climate change mitigation.

Beyond individuals, private sector investments in renewable power and fuels reached record levels in 2019. Corporate sourcing of renewables grew more than 40%, with agreements signed in 23 countries, and some in the order of gigawatts. Membership in RE100 grew at least 27% during the year to 229 global corporations.

The power sector is only
part of the picture

Momentum in renewable power hides a profound lag in the heating, cooling and transport sectors

It would be short-sighted to celebrate advances in the power sector without acknowledging the alarmingly low shares and slow uptake of renewables in the heating, cooling and transport sectors. Electricity use, such as for lighting, appliances and industrial equipment, accounts for only 17% of global final energy demand, whereas heating, cooling and transport account for as much as 83% of the energy we consume. Renewable shares in heating and cooling are low (10.1%) and struggle to increase, even as the sector accounts for more than half of total energy demand. Similarly, energy demand in transport – which accounts for a third of total energy demand – is growing the fastest by far, yet renewable shares barely exceed 3.3%.

Ongoing dependence on fossil fuels for heating, cooling and transport is related to a lack of policy support for renewables in these sectors. There is still no level playing field. Many countries continue to uphold fossil fuel subsidies, which in 2018 increased 30% from the year before. Global fossil fuel subsidies totalled USD 400 billion, more than double the amount that governments spent on renewable power. As coal plants continue to be built, public funding for these facilities is flowing to developing countries, increasing the risk for lock-in to fossil-fuelled power. The massive support for fossil fuels hinders the already difficult task of reducing emissions and must be brought to a halt.

A systemic problem requires a systemic response

Increasing the shares of renewables in all sectors is mandatory to enable the shift to a low-carbon energy system that could fulfil global climate and development goals. Unfortunately, the world is still far from being on track to meet these goals. Because of the ever-growing demand for energy, the continued support for fossil fuels and the lack of adoption of renewables in all sectors, the progress made by renewables is not fast enough to compete with rising energy demand. Demand for renewable energy grew three times faster than demand for fossil fuels and nuclear over a five-year period, but it accounted for less than a third of the total increase in final energy demand. This means that the share of renewables is only barely increasing.

Solutions exist for an immediate SHIFT
to efficiency and renewable energy

Much work remains to be done. On the bright side, solutions exist to switch to an efficient and renewable-based energy system. Successful policies and targets can be used as models, and minimising policy uncertainty is crucial to create stable markets. Three types of solutions must occur in parallel to make transformation of the energy system happen.

For policy makers, three actions must be taken in parallel:

  • Increase policies that actively support the uptake of renew­ables:

    Governments have many options for promoting renewables, and ambitious planning, targets and policies are needed. Already, cities such as Vienna have implemented plans to boost shares of renewable heat. Feed-in tariffs and mandates for renewable heat also have been effective. Although the global electric vehicle (EV) stock has grown significantly, policies should be put in place that incentivise EVs charged with renewable electricity, and biofuel policies should be strengthened. Finally, renewable electricity generation has to ramp up; nothing is holding back governments now from channelling much more investment into renew­able power.

  • Make energy efficiency mandatory to decrease energy demand:

    Energy efficiency measures that decrease final energy demand are crucial to meet climate goals. Measures such as building retrofits, net zero energy codes, fuel efficiency standards, promoting walking, cycling and renewable-powered public transport, and new mobility services can all work towards this goal. Cities have proven particularly capable of introducing and reinforcing such changes.

  • Accelerate the phase-out out of fossil fuels:

    Governments can take an offensive position to phase out fossil fuels and level the playing field that undermines renewable energy, especially in heating and transport, while ensuring a just transition. They should divest from fossil fuels, remove fossil fuel subsidies and implement fossil fuel bans across all sectors. Already 5 countries have plans to ban fossil fuel boilers for heating, and 14 countries have targets to ban fossil fuel vehicles. In addition, governments should implement a price on carbon emissions across all sectors that reflects the true cost of fossil fuels.

COVID-19 exposed that
systemic change is needed

Because of the reduced energy demand during the pandemic, carbon dioxide emissions are expected to decrease between 4% and 7% for 2020. Even under these extreme circumstances, such an emissions decline is not enough to meet global goals; a decrease in emissions of at least 7% annually over the next decade would be necessary to reach the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2° Celsius.

The pandemic’s impact on carbon emissions has proven that structural shifts to overhaul our existing fossil fuel-based energy system are necessary. Now, we have an opportunity to take ambitious action during a period of uncertainty.

Recovery offers a unique chance to shift to a low-carbon economy.

As governments build recovery packages, firm and unified action must be taken on emissions reduction and clean air goals. Beyond the recovery, governments also should create targets and policies to make possible the switch to an efficient and renewable-based energy system. Urgent, focused and co-ordinated policy action is crucial. And action must be taken now.

Continue with Chapter 01