The Switch to Renewable Power is a Battle We Cannot Afford to Lose (Op-Ed by IRENA Head)


(This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 24 December, 2015.)

Since the final gavel fell at the Lima climate talks earlier this month, discussions have centred on one question: what did the talks actually accomplish?

After two weeks of intense negotiation, governments settled on a draft text that will hopefully lead to a successful global climate deal in Paris next December. While opinions vary regarding the success or failure of the outcome, there is another story emerging outside the negotiation room.

This year’s conference represented a highly-significant shift in the positive momentum to act on climate change. While negotiators engaged in contentious debates, businesses, non-governmental organisations and local authorities stepped forward to present their own climate initiatives and committed to more action on the ground.

In this shift, renewable energy took centre stage.

According to the Nazca Climate Action portal (named after Peru’s famous geoglyphs), 319 cities and 261 companies are taking action on climate change. Of the 913 total actions recorded so far, 402 relate to energy efficiency and 242 relate to renewable energy.

Private sector initiatives – such as RE100 and the Global Investor Statement on Climate Change – have also emerged to encourage businesses and investors to phase out fossil fuels in favour of renewable energy.

National governments are following suit. Peru plans to generate 60% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2024; Chile doubled its total renewable power capacity in 2014; Germany and Sweden will be carbon-free by 2050. The list goes on, including 144 countries with renewable energy targets, 50 countries supporting a total phase-out of carbon emissions by 2050 and 100 countries supporting zero emissions by 2100.

This action, and the hope it generates for an attainable solution to climate change, is being partly fuelled by the increasingly strong business case for renewable energy. Renewable energy is now the most cost-competitive source of power in many parts of the world.

In Dubai, solar-generated electricity reached a record-low price of six cents per kilowatt hour at an auction in November, cheaper than gas and coal. Similar low prices were achieved for solar power in Brazil in October.

Research by the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) shows that a doubling of the world’s share of renewable energy by 2030, from about 18% in 2010 to 36%, would help avoid the worst effects of climate change and would be cheaper than not doing so.

When considering factors like the cost of ill health and environmental damage due to pollution, switching to renewable energy could save up to $740bn (£476bn) per year by 2030. If these costs were factored into energy prices, renewable energy and energy efficiency measures would be cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives.

Beyond cost, renewable energy improves public health and security, creates jobs, and boosts economic growth. Irena research finds that renewable energy jobs reached 6.5m globally in 2013 (the coal sector employed 7m people in the same year) and if steps are taken to double the share of renewable energy, this number could top 16m by 2030.

The momentum and action on renewable energy initiatives was not completely missed by negotiators in Lima. A carbon-free future is now formally part of the negotiations with the need to phase out fossil fuels considered one of the options in the draft negotiating text.

While this is a good first step, the emerging momentum must be injected further into the political discourse to fuel the agenda on climate action and spur a rapid transition to a low carbon future. Putting a price on carbon to create a level playing field for clean energy solutions will be an important driver of that agenda.

To accelerate the scale-up of renewables to the level required to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we need urgent, bold steps, from leaders willing to take the short-term hits from those who would rather carry on with business as usual. This needs to happen at global and local levels, engaging everyone from governments and corporations to investors and individuals.

Vested interests and short-term thinking must be overcome. It will be a battle. But it is a battle we simply cannot afford to lose.