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Renewable Energy Key Vehicle on Rio+20 Sustainable Development Roadmap

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The drive to forge sustainable, equitable “green” economies and develop and deploy renewable energy and clean technologies all front-and-center in the media in the run-up to the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which is to take place in the iconic Brazilian city June 20-22.

Three bits of essential reading, and reference, relating to global renewable energy growth and its role in sustainable development programs were released yesterday: the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2012, the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century’s (REN21) 2012 Renewables Global Status Report, and the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Renewable Energy Scorecard.

Record renewable energy growth

Renewable energy investment continued to grow strongly across all three end-use sectors tracked in UNEP’s report. In sum, renewable energy investments in power, heating and cooling, and transport increased 37 percent in 2010 and 17 percent in 2011 to a reach a record $257 billion.

That’s a six-fold increase over 2004′s total and 94 percent higher than that of 2007, a year that saw the onset of the “Great Recession.” Even more impressively, the gains have come despite strong economic, and in some cases, political headwinds, according to UNEP’s report, which is based on data provided by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Developing economies accounted for 35 percent of 2011′s $257 billion renewable energy investment total, with developed countries accounting for 65 percent. The US closed the gap on word-leader China as renewable energy increased 57 percent, to $51 billion. India exhibited the fastest growth among the largest national renewable energy markets, with investment surging 62 percent to $12 billion.

“There may be multiple reasons driving investments in renewables, from climate, energy security and the urgency to electrify rural and urban areas in the developing world as one pathway towards eradicating poverty-whatever the drivers the strong and sustained growth of the renewable energy sector is a major factor that is assisting many economies towards a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient Green Economy” stated UNEP executive director Achim Steiner.

Following are some of the UNEP and REN21 reports’ highlights:

  • The top seven countries for renewable electricity capacity excluding large hydro – China, the United States, Germany, Spain, Italy, India and Japan – accounted for about 70 percent of total non-hydro renewable capacity worldwide. The ranking among these countries was quite different for non-hydro capacity on a per person basis: Germany, Spain, Italy, the US, Japan, China and India. By region, the EU was home to nearly 37 percent of global non-hydro renewable capacity at the end of 2011, China, India and Brazil accounted for roughly one-quarter.
  • Total investment in solar power jumped 52 percent to $147 billion and featured booming rooftop photovoltaic (PV) installations in Italy and Germany, the rapid spread of small-scale PV to other countries from China to the UK and big investments in large-scale concentrating solar thermal (CSP) power projects in Spain and the US.
  • Competitive challenges intensified sharply, leading to sharp drops in prices, especially in the solar market — a boon to buyers but not to manufacturers, a number of whom went out of business or were forced to restructure.
  • Renewable power, excluding large hydro-electric, accounted for 44 percent of all new generating capacity added worldwide in 2011 (up from 34 percent in 2010). This accounted for 31 percent of actual new power generated, due to lower capacity factors for solar and wind capacity.
  • Gross investment in fossil-fuel capacity in 2011 was $302 billion, compared to $237 billion for that in renewable energy capacity excluding large hydro.

The Road to Rio+20: Targets, technology & capital

Not surprisingly, European countries have led the way forward among G20 countries when it comes to deploying and making use of renewable energy over the past decade, part-and-parcel of an emerging, more integrated approach to sustainable development, that addresses economic, social and environmental issues, NRDC found.

Renewable energy and clean technology figure to play a central role in at Rio+20, as representatives and observers look for follow-through on goals on renewable energy targets, technology transfer and investment capital agreed to at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) COP17 conference, which took place in Durban, South Africa Nov.-Dec. 2011.

Yet while progress has been substantial in developing, as well as developed economies, including those of China and the US, Brazil and India, the overhanging threat of another financial crisis and global recession is testing governments’ resolve to initiate, maintain and intensify integrated policy frameworks that address challenges at the ‘water-food-energy’ nexus.

Burn, baby, burn: Eliminating fossil fuel subsidies

While real progress has been made here in the US– renewable energy production has increased more than 300 percent in the past decade, NRDC highlights– Congressional ambivalence, evident in the lack of an integrated federal renewable energy policy framework characterized by “stop-start” policy and action, has led to repeated boom-bust cycles, NRDC’s Jake Schmidt and University of California, Berkeley renewable energy expert Dan Kammen noted in a press briefing.

G20 governments’ ongoing support of the production and burning of fossil fuels is another aspect of the report that stands out. Supporting a highly profitable, well-established fossil fuel industry that’s the primary agent of man-made climate change, environmental degradation, externalized costs foisted on public finances, G20 fossil fuel subsidies nonetheless remain some 5x-6x or more higher than those for renewable energy, Schmidt and Kammen noted.

It’s clear, and increasingly urgent that the energy playing field has to be leveled, and that means eliminating fossil fuel subsidies. Pressure must be brought to bear on and support given to policy makers willing and able to counter the extravagantly well-funded political lobbying and campaign funding, as well as the pernicious misinformation and disinformation campaigns, of fossil fuel industry media and public relations machine.

Renewable Energy Policy: Demand-Push + Supply-Pull

A combination of national policies has proven effective in increasing renewable energy demand (demand-pull) on the one side and boosting renewable energy production capacity (supply-push), UCal-Berkeley’s Kammen noted during NRDC’s press briefing.

Overall [renewable energy] investment of about $160 billion in 2011 is very impressive, but it’s also worth keeping in mind that with estimates of global subsidies of fossil fuels of $400-$500 billion, the landscape is far from truly level. There’s a huge amount of work governments can do, must do, to balance that out,” Kammen stated.

“It’s critical to note that it is a global marketplace. Developing nations are playing key roles in addition to G20 countries. A wide range of tools is proving to be effective– Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) in US states. In Europe, and increasingly and other countries Feed-in Tariffs (FiT), as well as carbon pricing is playing a role.

“There really is a diverse set of technologies, scales and market approaches being used today; the challenge is to move this forward dramatically in coming years. By 2020, [a renewable energy goal of] 15% is within reach. It’s beyond what’s currently on the table in terms of international agreements, but clearly within reach.”

Image credit: Air Products HFC Vehicle and Station

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