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Will developing countries lead the renewable energy race?

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Wind farm, Kanyakumari, south India

WWF has been actively campaigning worldwide to boost renewable energy (RES) as a key component of sustainable development and climate protection. Our rallying cry has been a call for a world powered by 100% renewable energy by 2050.

This is no pipe dream: it is economically and technically possible and each year the prospects for renewables become brighter as the technologies become cheaper, more widely available, more efficient and more reliable.

We are convinced that the success of renewables in the last few years will contribute substantively to a good result for the important Climate Conference in Paris 2015 that will agree on the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ of future global GHG emissions reductions for 2030 and beyond.

But the clean energy revolution is already in the system. We have witnessed the rapid decline of renewable energy manufacturing costs by about 80% for solar PV in the past five years and new developments in more efficient and larger wind turbines and geothermal energy.

Renewable energy growth has hit double-digit numbers regularly in the past few years and investments grew 6-fold since 10 years ago. At the same time, major multi-lateral development banks such as the World Bank and the European Investment Bank have begun to effectively reduce the funding for fossil fuels, particularly coal.

Solar power grew 50 times and wind power 7 times since the First Global Renewable Energy Conference in Bonn, 2004. There are now 145 countries, three times more than in 2004, who have at least one specific RES policy. Many have more policies. About 80 countries have specific RES targets domestically where there had been just 11 years back.

In terms of per capita installations of solar and wind in particular, the European countries of Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Czech Republic are still leading globally, but the picture looks very different when looking into recent actions.

Emerging leaders

This leadership is challenged. Since 2011, renewable energy investments of developing countries are approaching those of developed countries which had been in some decline in the last two years mainly in US and the EU, particularly in Germany.

Where there had been hardly any solar and wind development ten years back, China is today the largest investor globally, employs the most people in the biggest RES fleet of any country. Three months back, China updated its already ambitious 2015 targets to 330 GW hydro, 150 GW wind and 70 GW solar for 2017. In just two years.

Specifically for solar, there is consideration for further elevation to 100 GW by 2020. Renewable wind and solar power in 2020 might be as big as 40% of today’s coal capacity in the country, reducing the need for that dirty fuel.

In May this year, Mexico agreed to double its renewable power generation by 2018 (presently 15% to 25% of all electricity produced) mainly wind power. Similarly, the Indian government is presently discussing a target of similar dimension, 200 GW of solar and wind in next 10 years – this would be close to a death penalty for much of the existing and planned new coal in the country.

Last year, Morocco legislated that by 2020 strong energy efficiency shall reduce overall energy consumption by 12% and RES shall grow to more than 40% of its electricity supply. Similarly, the Philippines agreed to double renewable power to about 50% by 2030. Even the largest oil country, Saudi Arabia which has no renewable energy capacity so far, has put aside $US 150 billion to build more than 50 GW (mainly solar and wind) by 2032, which is the size of its present electricity generation capacity.

Indonesia’s recent legislation aims to grow present renewable electricity share of 5% to 25% by 2023. Even without any binding renewable energy targets, but based on very conducive domestic framework that ensures investment security, Brazil commissioned new wind power capacity in the order of magnitude of about 5% its total energy supply during this past year.

Based on economic capabilities (investments per GDP and not total national investments), the countries that led in 2013 on RES investments were all from the global south, namely Uruguay, Mauritius, Costa Rica, South Africa and Nicaragua. These five countries spend about 0.8% to 1.6% of their GDP on renewables. And most of these countries have already very ambitious short term RES targets of 60% – 100% renewables in power sector mainly by between 2015 and 2025. That dwarfs any RES targets by OECD nations.

South Africa is poised to overtake Germany and Italy soon with its very successful domestic solar power program. It is estimated that by the end of 2015, South Africa will have solar power on five million rooftops, almost every third roof in the country.

For the past two years, the country has had the largest renewable energy investments per GDP of close to 1% among its peers in the most powerful G20 nations. However, the recently discussed building of eight nuclear reactors might torpedo this clean development in South Africa.

But there are many more nations in Africa — from Madagascar, Ethiopia and Kenya to Tunisia and oil-rich Algeria — that have taken up ambitious RES targets for the future.

These countries can now lead the technology development, the cost reductions, research and development. Clean renewable energy deployment is no longer a luxurious, costly, ineffective tool of the rich. The opposite is true. Renewable energies are increasingly becoming the ‘ownership’ of the South but we also need the large centres of energy consumption in the North to speedily switch to renewables, too.

Dr Stephan Singer is the Director, Global Energy Policy for WWF. He is based in Brussels, Belgium.

Find out more about the deployment of and global trends around renewable energy here.

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