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Steady but Modest Progress Found on Renewables Adoption

The world has made “steady but modest progress” in improving global access to electricity and safe cooking fuels, increasing energy efficiency and adding renewable sources to the world’s energy mix, said Vivien Foster, energy unit sector manager at the World Bank’s sustainable energy department, at a recent briefing in London.

Representatives of the three agencies (the World Bank, the World Energy Council and UK-based charity Practical Action) behind the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) Global Tracking Report, released last week, were on hand to précis, clarify and answer journalists’ questions. The report outlines the baseline from which the UN-sponsored programme will work toward its objectives for 2030.

Of the three “pillars” (access to electricity, increased energy efficiency and more renewables) of the SE4ALL programme, renewables are “a very complex story”, according to Foster. She praised the renewables revolution of the past 20 years, with its dramatic expansion of wind and solar power. But the problem, she said, is that renewables have grown from a very small baseline amount while global demand for energy has increased substantially, so renewable energy’s share of the world’s total final energy consumption (TFEC) is small; the revolution has only produced a 2 percent jump in global share, she said.

Renewables make up 18 percent of the world’s energy mix, the report states, and roughly half of new energy projects use renewable sources. However, Foster pointed out that over half of this amount is traditional biomass used for cooking in the developing world, while a further quarter is modern bioenergy. “So overall, three quarters of what we call renewable energy is bioenergy,” she said — and the sustainability of much of it isn’t well understood. “So the 18 percent is really an upper boundary, because an unknown portion is unsustainable,” she said. The medium-term agenda for the SE4ALL team includes improving the definition of “renewable”, for example by tracking deforestation, she said.

Because traditional biomass is the largest part of global renewable energy, Foster explained, the least developed continents now have the largest share of renewables (two thirds of global renewable energy is now used in Africa and Asia), and this share is decreasing as these continents modernise and, for example, upgrade to liquid cooking fuels, which tend to be fossil fuels. The opposite trend features in the developed world: for example, Europe has doubled its share of renewables since 1990. The net effect of these counterbalancing trends over time, she said, is unknown.  

Since biomass supply is limited and initiatives such as SE4ALL are trying to wean people off it, global use of traditional biomass is unlikely to grow, which means other renewable energy sources “will need to quadruple” by 2030 to make up for it, said Foster. There has been enormous progress over the past 20 years, she said, “but the world is moving very rapidly and it’s hard to keep up. Progress has only kept slightly ahead of the huge growth in population and energy demand. If we want to move forward,” she warned, “we have to run faster still.”

Another issue is that the three “pillars” of the SE4ALL programme are interlinked, the team said. For the necessary scale-up of renewables to be possible, energy efficiency must be achieved so that less energy is consumed. Access to electricity is the UN’s priority, but it must be implemented with energy efficiency and renewable sources built in. There is “a small amount of tension” between the goals of access and scaling up renewables, said Foster – particularly with the goal of replacing solid biomass for cooking, because it tends to be replaced with liquid fossil fuels.  

To achieve SE4ALL’s renewable energy objectives, Foster said, substantial financing scale-ups will be needed. Currently all projections (such as the International Energy Agency’s new policy scenario, in which nations merely fulfil their existing commitments) fall well short of the objective to double the amount in the global mix by 2030.

Going forward, the report team also plans to map investment plans and market them to the financial community, and to involve industry in facilitating technology and knowledge transfers around the world. “Business needs to be part of the solution,” said Christoph Frei, World Energy Council secretary general, and political risk needs to be reframed. Governments need to “understand the risks of not going after these objectives, and translate that into policy,” he said.

“We need to work very seriously on the policy environment,” said Foster. The project partners are currently discussing countries’ “enabling environments” for renewables adoption. All renewable energy sectors need a sustainability protocol in the medium term, said Foster, such as the International Hydropower Association’s new Sustainability Assessment Protocol. And fossil fuel subsidies need to be eliminated, said Frei. He said these subsidies “are in place to address poverty, but they are not actually doing that. We can only broadly acknowledge today that we do not have the best way of structuring subsidies.” This needs more discussion, he said.

Lead image: UN earth flag via Shutterstock