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100% Renewable energy must be the key feature of future climate discussions – starting in Bonn

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By Dr Stephan Singer

Climate negotiators will have to give substance to important elements of the new global deal on climate change if they want to deliver on their promise to try to keep warming under 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. A meeting next week in Bonn, Germany is the first opportunity for governments to add content to key elements of the climate agreement since its adoption in Paris last year.

This meeting is where governments must demonstrate they will deliver on the promises made in Paris. But the real proof of political will only be evident when we see how countries act to mobilise resources to cut carbon pollution. There is no time left for countries, companies and funders to delay embarking on a just transition to stay within planetary survival boundaries, to limit irreversible and disastrous climate damages to 1.50 Celsius global warming.

The zero carbon requirement for the energy sector

The key sector to address immediately and everywhere  is energy supply from fossil fuels, which are responsible for about two thirds of global warming pollution. Science tells us that in order to stay well below 20 Celsius global warming – and even not violate the 1.50 Celsius threshold commitment in the Paris Agreement (PA) – we must reduce global emissions 80 per cent by 2050, and the foundation for that is zero emissions from the energy sector. The global carbon budget, the allowable cumulative greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, from now on to meet the temperature objective, does not permit any deviation from that.

Together with seriously enhanced efforts of energy efficiency and conservation, a global move to 100 per cent renewables within the next few decades is the crucial part of this global decarbonisation.

Based on financial analysis, to embark on this pathway requires a four-fold increase in annual renewable energy investments in the next 15 to 20 years. Similar investment growth is needed with energy efficiency. During the same period, investments into fossil fuels and nuclear need to decline by more than 50 per cent from present (about $US 1 trillion annually), which currently represents about twice as much as financing renewables and energy efficiency combined. But is that likely to happen under the PA?

What type of deal is this, really?

Depending on who you listen to, the PA had been dubbed one of the greatest breakthroughs and successes of global diplomacy amidst a planetary crisis. But it is also an inconsistent deal that cements a pathway to a climate future that violates the survival needs of fragile ecosystems and poor communities.

But let’s be clear, this deal is a floor – the new business as usual. It is not a ceiling. Without this floor, the world will be a more disastrous place. If the commitments are implemented, they will violate the 20 Celsius objective. Yet they will also avoid a much worse run-away climate change of 3 degrees and higher by the end of this century.

Together with the many activities and announcements by a plethora of regional, national and international governmental and non-governmental stakeholders under the Lima Paris Action Agenda (LPAA), the overall ‘Paris package’ has the potential – no guarantee – to boost climate actions worldwide everywhere and overshoot the agreed conservative climate pledges by nations.  We are certainly not there yet, but as an analyst said:  “It all depends what we make out of it in reality”.

The PA, the growing climate movement driven by civil society organisations, trade unions and clean businesses alike, the declining faith in fossil fuels and in conjunction with the agreed Sustainable Development Goals by the UN in September, all inspires actions. But to be clear, it does not legislate them; it encourages and shows further policies and measures, it does not regulate or finance those.

Breaking all the climate records

We’re currently observing the highest CO2 concentration in the atmosphere for probably more than 10 million years. The impacts of the climate change-induced El Nino have triggered global temperatures in 2015 to a record high of 10  Celsius warmer than in 1900, when mankind started to reliably record global temperatures.

One degree does not sound like much. But as a global average, this is enormous and happening probably twenty to fifty times faster than observed under natural climate changes in the geological past.

The impacts are visible too. In South Africa, more than 30 million people are now likely to suffer from food shortages. In Indonesia, El Nino caused forest fires to emit about half of the annual CO2 emissions of the entire EU – but in just two months, September and October 2015. Coral bleaching and enhanced mortality is now a sad wide-spread phenomenon observed across the Equatorial waters of the Indian and the Pacific Ocean between Africa, South East Asia, Australia and South America.

To limit global warming to no more than 1.50 Celsius– and we have even not reached this temperature limit – is without doubt a Herculean task. But there is no alternative.

Swapping CO2 for clean energy

The world has to reduce CO2 pollution, primarily because this is by far the most important and longest-lasting climate gas in the atmosphere. Up to 40 per cent of CO2, once in the atmosphere, will remain there for 1 000 years and longer.

The job of all is to fully decarbonise the entire energy sector, the main emitter of CO2 – before 2050, preferably. Of course, other emitting sectors and gases have to be cleaned up drastically as well – but all is nothing without a full move to 100 per cent  renewables and shifting the trillions away from investments into and subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear.

The PA provides one fundamentally important base to do so.

Although clean new renewables, mainly wind and solar, have exponentially grown in last decade – from literally zero by 2004 to now more than 6 per cent  of all global power, this is still very low in terms of overall energy sector supply.

Their growth contributed significantly to stalling global CO2 pollution from the energy sector in last two years – but did not lead to a CO2 decline. The carbon budget for not violating the 1.5 and well below2 degree objective gives the world less than 20 years of present emissions – so there are no alternative to rapid and significant cuts in fossil fuel use.

The role of renewables

To grow renewables to 100 per cent, we need to do a few things primarily and immediately, well before 2020:

  • First is to accept that all renewables have a place in the future sustainable economy. Not all renewables are as clean as wind and solar, but we need the other ones as well and to make them more sustainable, such as bioenergy and hydropower.
  • Second, we cannot rely just on markets to get renewables in the system. Not only do we need to stop new coal use, but we also need to start phasing out existing coal plants and avoid a new lock-in into “low-carbon” fossil gas.
  • Third, we need to speed up alternatives to oil use, particularly in the transport and heating sector, such as renewably-based electrification.
  • Fourth, governments need to regulate, legislate, incentivise the massive shift to investment into renewables and foremost significantly increase support poor countries for their “Energiewende”.
  • Fifth, policy regulation needs to include significant enhancement of energy efficiency and conservation across all consumption sectors and products. It is almost impossible to reach a fully renewable-based energy and industry system in case the world does not harvest the many and mostly cost-effective options and technologies already available on the market.
  • Lastly, the narrative and advocacy on the move to 100 per cent renewables needs to include the many non-climate benefits of doing so. Avoiding deadly air pollution and health damages as well as erratic fuel import prices, reduced manufacturing costs, enhancing water conservation and providing many more jobs than fossil fuels or nuclear are all additional drivers for many countries to invest in renewables. And all has to happen in record speed if we want to limit irreversible climate damages.

Let’s all work together to make this happen. The PA provides one excellent platform, but again it is not a silver bullet, nor is there any excuse to delegate action to the UN system alone. Actions have to happen everywhere by everyone.

Dr Stephan Singer is WWF International’s director for global energy policy.

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  • Janne M. Korhonen

    How much bioenergy are you planning to use by 2050, how large land areas or forest areas are appropriated for bioenergy crops and trees, and where in the world?

    And how do you plan to deal with rebound caused by increasing energy efficiency? Do you factor rebound into your energy use calculations in the first place?

  • Sam Gilman

    It’s not clear why you omit nuclear from low carbon strategies.