“The energy transition is not happening” writes REN21

Fossil fuels continue to dominate the energy sector by a wide margin, despite the unprecedented increase in wind and solar energy generation capacity. Perrine Mouterde writes on the Le Monde website about the new global status report from REN21.


Despite record growth in renewables, ‘the energy transition is not happening,’ says new report

With record newly installed capacity, record electricity production and record investments, the worldwide development of renewable energies has never been so fast. Is this a sign that the profound transformation of the energy sector is well underway? No, the international policy network for renewable energy REN21 replied on Wednesday, June 15, in the just published 17th edition of its annual report. Because, despite this unprecedented growth – especially in wind and solar power – the energy sector continues to be largely dominated by fossil fuels, at levels almost similar to a decade ago. “The energy transition is not happening,” wrote REN21, which brings together members from the worlds of science, academia, industry, NGOs and governments.

The Renewables 2022 Global Status Report, on which more than 650 experts worked, takes stock of the state of the sector and alerts to the fact that a crucial opportunity has been missed. The promises of a “green recovery” launched after two years of Covid-19 pandemic have not materialized. Since then, an unprecedented crisis, worsened by Russia’s war in Ukraine, has sent energy and commodity prices soaring. “Although in 2021 more and more governments have committed to achieving carbon neutrality, the reality is that, in response to the crisis, many countries are again looking for new sources of fossil fuels, and burn more as well,” said REN21 executive director Rana Adib.

At the same time, energy demand has continued to grow (by 4% in 2021), particularly in emerging countries in Africa and Asia. Much of this need has been met by increasingly relying on coal and natural gas. Global CO2 emissions, three-quarters of which are related to the energy sector, jumped by 6% last year, adding 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. China also became the first country to exceed one terawatt of installed capacity. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), this strong growth is expected to continue in 2022: Beijing, for example, announced in early June that it wants to double its solar and wind energy production by 2025.

Policies of efficiency

Although unprecedented, the development rate of renewables registered in 2021 remains largely insufficient to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. It would have to go almost three times faster. “Even if we break records for the growth of renewables, we are not at all on the path to achieving the goals of the Paris climate agreement,” said Ms. Adib. It would also be necessary for this growth to expand beyond the energy sector, to which it is mostly limited today. Renewables provide about 28% of the energy mix. In sectors as large as transport and heating, which account for 32% and 51% of final energy consumption, respectively, the share of renewables is still marginal (3.7% and 11.2%).

To lower energy demand, the IEA has again called on policymakers to take concrete action and inititative with regard to efficiency – allowing the same services to be provided with less energy. In a report released on June 8, the organization wrote that a “high energy efficiency” scenario would save the equivalent of China’s annual final consumption by 2030. “Energy efficiency is a key solution to many of our most pressing challenges. It can make our energy supplies more affordable, secure and sustainable,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director. “However, governments and business leaders are inexplicably failing to do enough in this area.” In addition to efficiency, major organizations as well as those in the civil sector are calling to rethink the various uses of energy and implement conservancy policies, again to reduce demand.

Financing is another area where action must be taken. While investment in renewables grew for the fourth year in a row in 2021, reaching $366 billion (351 billion euros), many countries continue to massively fund gas, oil or coal operations. REN21 estimates that in 2020, governments spent $5.9 trillion, or 7% of the global gross domestic product, to subsidize fossil fuels – while, at the same time, some countries reduced their support for renewable energy.

‘A real disconnection’

On the policy front, the REN21 report notes that significant commitments were made in 2021, on the heels of the IEA’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 report and during COP26 for Climate. At least 135 countries have announced that they want to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and, by the end of 2021, 169 countries had also set targets to increase the development of renewables. However, all these promises are still far from being implemented. “When you look at how carbon neutrality commitments are translated in terms of planning or regulations, for example, there is a real disconnection,” said Ms. Adib.

She believes that the current crisis, linked to the invasion of Ukraine, could in fact represent another opportunity to start off a structural transformation of the sector. “Renewables are no longer just at the center of the climate, environmental or health debate,” she said. “They are also at the heart of economic and security discussions, and have proved their resilience.”

Currently, Iceland has the largest share of renewables in its energy mix. Renewables exceed 40% in only six other countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Brazil, Latvia and Tajikistan. Worldwide, the renewable share of total consumption was 11.7 % in 2019, up from 8.7 % in 2009.

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