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Energy transition lags behind climate goals

An international organization that advances renewable energy sources finds the power sector is not changing fast enough to keep Earth from overheating.

An international organization working to advance renewable energy sources finds reason for optimism but worry, too. The power sector is rapidly changing, yet not enough is being done to keep Earth from overheating.

Renewable sources of power accounted for 70% of net additions to global power generating capacity last year, the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, or REN21, said in a new report in June.

High shares of renewables are being integrated across the world but political leadership is needed for a major energy transition, Jamil Ahmad, head of intergovernmental affairs for U.N. Environment, or UNEP, told reporters in a webcast briefing on June 4.

Technology advances and lower costs are big factors, said Laura Williamson, REN21's director of outreach and communication.

"What we are actually seeing is an electricity transition, not an energy transition," she said.

There have been "huge advances" in technology and policy, particularly since a 2004 global conference on sustainable energy that gave rise to REN21 and the International Renewable Energy Agency, or IRENA, said Michael Eckhart, managing director and global head of environmental finance in the corporate and investment banking division of Citigroup in New York.

"We've seen really 40 years of innovation. It didn't happen accidentally," he said. "I don't think there's a country in the world that is not doing something with regard to renewable energy today. ... I'm quite optimistic about where this thing is going."

Despite the broad transition to clean energy, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose 1.4% in 2017 due to strong economic growth, lower fossil fuel prices and weaker efforts to boost energy efficiency, the Paris-based REN21 said in its Renewables 2018 Global Status Report.

Arthouros Zervos, an engineering professor at the National Technical University of Athens who chairs REN21, said the report shows the contrast between a revolution in the power-generating sector, which is quickly shaking things up, and a lag in other sectors, which is slowing down the world's broader transition towards a renewable energy future.

Solar array built with U.S. grant money on a Massachusetts highway to power a water treatment plant (Arete/Mass. DOT)

Climate urgency

A quicker transition is needed for the world to fulfill the United Nations-brokered 2015 Paris Agreement's goals of preventing Earth from heating up by 2 degrees Celsius more than at the start of the industrial age and of pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Diplomats from more than 190 nations set a December deadline to create a rulebook for complying. The negotiations are overseen by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC.

It has been just over a year since U.S. President Donald Trump announced on June 1, 2017 that he intends to withdraw the United States, the world's second-biggest emitter of global warming emissions behind China, from the Paris climate deal, in a decision that drew widespread criticism around the world. He may not follow through.

"What we hear is they're not going to act on that," Eckhart said, without citing specifics. Meantime, many U.S. political and business leaders say they will honor the Paris Agreement, particularly since the formal process of withdrawal can only begin  after the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Positive momentum, but it isn't enough

The world hasn't had a cooler than average year since 1976 and it hasn't had a cooler than normal month since the end of 1985. The last four years were the hottest on record globally, and 2010 was the fifth hottest year, according to the World Meteorological Organization, or WMO, and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Each year of the 21st century so far was at least 0.4 degrees C. warmer than the 20th century average. The year 2016 is the warmest since records began; Earth surface temperatures averaged more than 1 degree above pre-industrial levels. Measured global average temperatures for 2017 and 2015 were 1.1 degrees warmer.

Zervos also sees difficulty ahead fulfilling the seventh of the U.N.'s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, a global anti-poverty and societal to-do list. The seventh goal is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

"While momentum in the power sector is positive, it will not on its own deliver the emissions reductions demanded by the Paris climate agreement or the aspirations of Sustainable Development Goal 7. The heating, cooling and transport sectors, which together account for about 80% of global total final energy demand, are lagging behind," he wrote in REN21's report.

"But the news is not all bad," he said. "Renewable power generation capacity saw its largest annual increase ever with an estimated 178 gigawatts added globally. New solar photovoltaic generating capacity alone was greater than additions in coal, natural gas and nuclear power combined. And while China, Europe and the United States accounted for nearly 75% of the global investment in renewable power and fuels, 2017 saw significant investment in developing country markets."

8% getting most power from renewables

The Marshall Islands, Rwanda, Solomon Islands, Guinea-Bissau and many other developing countries have invested as least as much in renewables as some emerging economies, he said. Corporate renewable energy sourcing has moved beyond the United States and Europe to include nations like Burkina Faso, Chile, China, Egypt, Ghana, India, Japan, Mexico, Namibia and Thailand.

Renewable energy sources such as wind farms and solar photovoltaic installations accounted for an estimated 18.2% of global energy consumption. More nations set targets and policies for their use; more solar photovoltaic was added in 2017 than net additions of coal, gas and nuclear combined.

But the use of so-called biofuels, which provide energy from crops and wastes, was "held back by sustainability debates, policy uncertainty and slow technological progress in advanced fuels, such as for aviation," the report concluded, and renewable heating and cooling also continued to lag behind.

IRENA reported in late May that 8% of the 2,410 large companies it surveyed last year were meeting at least half of their electricity needs from renewable energy sources like wind and water.

It said 200 mostly European and North American companies reported that more than half of the electricity they consumed came from renewables. Some 2%, or 50 of the companies, reported that all of their electricity came from cleaner, non fossil fuel-burning energy sources.

Some international organizations also have recently suggested creating a new global fund to accelerate creation of new technology that can fulfill the Paris Agreement.