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Renewables Are "Bright Spot" in Bleak Low-carbon Outlook

Today in New Delhi the International Energy Agency (IEA) revealed the latest figures from its annual report on global progress towards a low-carbon future. The agency addressed its report to a meeting of the Clean Energy Ministerial, a group of ministers representing nations that collectively emit four-fifths of global greenhouse gases.

The IEA's presentation revealed a largely pessimistic view of the world's progress in clean energy. “The drive to clean up the world’s energy system has stalled,” said executive director Maria van der Hoeven. “Despite much talk by world leaders, and despite a boom in renewable energy over the last decade, the average unit of energy produced today is basically as dirty as it was 20 years ago.”

The report, Tracking Clean Energy Progress, measures each technology and sector against 2020 targets and introduces a metric, the Energy Sector Carbon Intensity Index (ESCII), which reveals how much carbon dioxide is emitted per given unit of energy. The ESCII measured 2.39 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of oil equivalent (tCO2/toe) for 1990; this number was almost unchanged by 2010, holding steady at 2.37 tCO2/toe.

“As world temperatures creep higher due to ever-increasing emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide – two thirds of which come from the energy sector – the overall lack of progress should serve as a wake-up call,” van der Hoeven said. “We cannot afford another 20 years of listlessness. We need a rapid expansion in low-carbon energy technologies if we are to avoid a potentially catastrophic warming of the planet but we must also accelerate the shift away from dirtier fossil fuels.”

Renewables Are a "Bright Spot"

Although it said progress remains alarmingly slow for a majority of technologies that could move the world toward achieving international climate goals, the IEA’s report showcases some positive recent signs. Renewable technologies and increased efforts by developing countries are "among the few bright spots", the agency said, and van der Hoeven's presentation called renewables "a light in the dark".

From 2011 to 2012, the report says, solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind technologies grew by 42% and 19% respectively despite ongoing economic and policy turbulence in both sectors. Emerging economies are also increasing their clean energy efforts – for example, Brazil, China and India were among the countries that enhanced policy support for the renewable power sector in 2012.

The IEA's report offers policy recommendations for each technology. Arguing that the true cost of energy must be reflected in consumer prices, the agency recommends carbon pricing and the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies. Technologies such as electric vehicles, wind and solar will need support for several more years, the report says, but it cautions that policies should be flexible and transparent. While it predicts that growing economic competitiveness will support robust renewable-sector growth, the IEA stresses that effective policy support is crucial, including facilitating grid integration through market design reforms.

The agency also recommends wider deployment of concentrating solar power (CSP) and offshore wind, as well as enhanced RD&D for promising new technologies such as ocean power. But renewable energy technologies are broadly on track to meet 2020 targets as performance improves, deployment is scaled up and markets expand globally, the IEA found.

Image: CO2 via Shutterstock

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