Sustainable Economic Growth Possible With Clean Energy and Energy Efficiency

After four decades, the world economy grows without a parallel increase in emissions thanks to renewables and energy efficiency.
Published: Mon 13 Jul 2015

According to a report by REN21, it would appear that economic and sustainable growth is quite possible through energy efficiency measures, as well as renewable energy.  

The report reveals that despite the world's average annual energy consumption increasing on average by 1.5% and the Gross Domestic Product growing on average by 3%, carbon emissions did not change from 2013 levels. In fact, for the first time in 40 years, the world economy grew without a parallel rise in carbon emissions. The report states that this proves that economic and sustainable growth is possible through the growth in energy efficiency measures and clean energy.

Major global growth in renewables

Over 164 countries are working towards renewable energy targets and have adopted other support policies. This has resulted in a record-breaking energy generation capacity last year- about 135GW of added renewable energy power increasing total installed capacity to 1,712GW, up 8.5% from the year before. 

China's renewables development and efforts by countries in the OECD to promote more sustainable growth-including energy efficiency and renewable energy, has contributed largely to this global growth in sustainability efforts.  

Supportive policies in at least 145 countries (up by seven countries last year) has played a major role in the increase in renewables. The worldwide power generation capacity from wind, solar photovoltaic (PV), and hydro sources alone were up 128GW from 2013. As of end-2014, renewables comprised an estimated 27.7% of the world's power generating capacity, enough to supply an estimated 22.8% of global electricity demand. Solar PV capacity has grown at the most phenomenal rate-up 48-fold from 2004 (3.7GW) to 2014 (177GW)-with strong growth also in wind power capacity (up nearly 8-fold over this period, from 48GW in 2004 to 370GW in 2014). 

New investment in renewables grows

Global new investment in renewable power and fuels (not including hydropower >50MW) increased 17% over 2013, to US$270.2 billion. Including large-scale hydropower, new investment in renewable power and fuels reach at least US$301 billion. Global new investment in renewable power capacity was more than twice that of investment in net fossil fuel power capacity. This continues the trend of renewables outpacing fossil fuels in net investment for the fifth year running. 

Employment in the renewable energy sector is growing rapidly as well. In 2014, an estimated 7.7 million people worldwide worked directly or indirectly in the sector. 

Investment in developing countries was up 36% from the previous year to US$131.3 billion. Developing country investment came the closest ever to surpassing the investment total for developed economies, which reached US$138.9 billion in 2014, up only 3% from 2013. China accounted for 63% of developing country investment, while Chile, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey each invested more than US$1 billion in renewable energy. 

By dollars spent, the leading countries for investment were China, the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom and Germany. Leading countries for investments relative to per capita GDP were Burundi, Kenya, Honduras, Jordan, and Uruguay. 

Remove fossil fuel subsidies

The sector's growth could be even bigger if the more than US$550 billion in annual subsidies for fossil fuel and nuclear energy were removed. Subsidies perpetuate artificially low energy prices from those sources, encouraging waste and impeding competition from renewables. [Engerati-Fossil Fuel Subsidies-Worse Than The Financial Crisis?]

Christine Lins, Executive Secretary, REN21 explains: "Creating a level playing field would strengthen the development and use of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. Removing fossil fuel and nuclear subsidies globally would make it evident that renewables are the cheapest energy option." 

Despite spectacular growth of renewable energy capacity in 2014, more than one billion people, or 15% of humanity, still lack access to electricity. More attention needs to be paid to the role that distributed renewable energy technologies can play in reducing these numbers by providing essential and productive energy services in remote and rural areas. This can be made possible with governments’ support of renewables by creating the right policy frameworks so that private investments can be channeled appropriately.

Further reading

REN21-Renewables 2015 Global Status Report