All over the world, the growth of green energy is accelerating. More than 80% of all new electricity generating projects built last year were renewable, leading to a 10.3% rise in total installed zero carbon electricity generation globally, a new report shows.
Yet in spite of reduced energy demand in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, fossil fuel electricity generation also continued to grow. So, therefore, did carbon emissions.
The report, from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), revealed that 91 per cent of new renewables last year were wind and solar projects, with solar generation having grown the fastest, up by 127 gigawatts—a 22% increase from 2019. Wind power expanded by almost double from the total added the year before, from 58 gigawatts added in 2019 to 111 gigawatts added in 2020.
Overall, IRENA found that renewables’ share of global electricity capacity rose two percentage points, from 34.6% in 2019 to 36.6% in 2020.
The news should be welcomed by those who recognize decarbonizing the global energy system is an essential step towards combatting climate change. Accordingly, IRENA director-general Francesco La Camera was upbeat about the figures.
“These numbers tell a remarkable story of resilience and hope,” La Camera said. “Despite the challenges and the uncertainty of 2020, renewable energy emerged as a source of undeniable optimism for a better, more equitable, resilient, clean and just future.” The year marked what he called “the start of the decade of renewables.” He added: “costs are falling, clean tech markets are growing and never before have the benefits of the energy transition been so clear.”
But the IRENA report also found that, in spite of lower energy demand and the larger share of renewables in 2020, fossil fuel capacity also increased, though not by quite as much as seen during the previous year, rising 60 gigawatts as compared with 64 gigawatts in 2019. China alone added 38 gigawatts of new coal fired power plants last year.
Perhaps that’s why La Camera ended his remarks with a note of caution: “As the review of our World Energy Transition Outlook highlights, there is a huge amount to be done,” he said. Referring to the Paris Agreement target, he concluded: “Our 1.5 degree outlook shows significant planned energy investments must be redirected to support the transition if we are to achieve 2050 goals. In this critical decade of action, the international community must look to this trend as a source of inspiration to go further.”
The fact of the matter, as La Camera acknowledged, is that while renewables’ share of electricity generation is increasing, fossil fuels are generating more carbon emissions than ever. This year, for the first time, atmospheric CO2 reached 417 parts per million—that’s 50% above the pre-industrial levels of CO2 seen in the 18th century.
The reason for the continued increase in emissions is that renewables growth has not kept pace with the growth in demand for electricity, as a recent report from Ember, a U.K.-based climate think-tank, showed.
Ember electricity analyst Dave Jones, who looked at the IRENA report, commented: “We actually used more electricity from fossil fuels in 2020 globally than in 2015 when the Paris climate agreement was signed. It’s not enough that we set a new renewable capacity record this year; we need to be setting a new record every year.”
But just as important as new renewables, Jones stressed, was the need to switch off existing fossil fuel electricity generation—permanently.
“We need a plan to close the bad stuff—it’s the fossil fuels that are causing the problems,” Jones told Forbes.com. “The energy transition is not a transition into clean energy, it’s a transition from fossil to clean. We need to treat it as such.”
Jones noted that on the same day as the IRENA report, Global Energy Monitor reported that 2020 was another year of increased global coal-fired generation capacity. A similar report on gas, a fossil fuel that many countries have favoured as a “cleaner” alternative to coal, will come out later in the year.
“We still haven’t seen a single year of falling coal capacity ever,” Jones pointed out. “True, we are making good progress at building less coal and gas power plants, but we are still building them. We need to be retiring them.”
Jones added that putting in place a plan to retire coal and gas plants was essential not just to reduce emissions, but to enable workers from those industries to transition to long-term jobs in the renewable energy sector.
“We can’t afford for whole regions to get left behind,” he said. “Governments have rightly got excited about the jobs and investment clean energy will bring. But that is only half the challenge.”