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Putting energy efficiency first : a test of our realism for climate action?

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 The pessimist complains about the wind;
the optimist expects it to change;
the realist adjusts the sails.


– William Arthur Ward

Living up to the climate challenge : a test of realism

This maxim from William Arthur Ward resonates particularly strongly as I finish my reading of REN21’s recently-published Renewables 2018 Global Status Report.

The optimist in me relishes at the report’s finding that 2017 marks the year with the largest increase in renewable power capacity in modern history. 70% of the new power generation capacity in 2017 was provided by renewable sources, with the expansion of solar being particularly impressive. An energy transition is clearly underway.

This positive news is however dampered by the fact that energy-related CO2 emissions are on the rise, after 4 years of stagnation. This indicates that the deployment of renewables is not happening at a sufficiently fast pace to outstrip the growth in energy demand. The uptake of renewables in heating and cooling has been particularly weak, despite the considerable energy demand growth expected in these sectors in the next 3 decades. So how can we realistically change this path and adjust the sails of our global energy transition ?

Putting Energy Efficiency First

One powerful lever that tends to be neglected is improving how efficiently we consume energy. Energy efficiency represents the most cost-effective way of achieving international goals on climate, universal access to energy and clean air. According to IEA, energy efficiency improvements could lead to a 44% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050 compared to a business as usual scenario. Yet, the potential for energy efficiency improvements in the buildings, transport and industrial sectors are far from being realised.

The reason for this lack of uptake is not primarily technological. Energy efficiency solutions exist, the problem is more policy-related : too few countries have yet institutionalised minimum energy performance standards, mandatory building codes, or carried awareness-raising campaigns on energy efficiency issues. In short, if we are to make the most of the energy we use, policy efforts need to be ramped up.

Building a momentum for energy efficiency improvements

The coming into force of the Kigali Amendment of the Montreal Protocol in January 2019 is a promising first step in placing energy efficiency more center stage in the climate debate. Before that, there are a number of key events during which a momentum on raising energy efficiency ambition can be pushed. COP24 in Poland is an opportunity to explore the role energy efficiency can play in  climate negotiations. Non-state actors can also make this issue their own during the Global Climate Action Summit in September. These key international events can and must become landmarks for energy efficiency in policy circles so we can begin to adjust our sails to safely navigate to our common vision of a decarbonised world.

Jennifer Calder is WWF’s Climate & Energy Practice Expert on Energy Efficiency. Reach her at

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