The worldwide supply of electricity from clean energy sources must be doubled by the end of the decade to limit global temperature rise—or else there is an increased risk that worsening extreme weather disasters turbocharged by the fossil fuel-driven climate crisis will further diminish energy security and even imperil renewable power generation.
That’s according to the annual World Meteorological Organization (WMO) State of Climate Services report, published Tuesday, which includes input from 26 partners and focuses on energy this year because it “holds the key” to international agreements on sustainable development and climate action, with urgent and far-reaching changes needed to improve public and planetary health.
“The energy sector is the source of around three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a statement. “Switching to clean forms of energy generation, such as solar, wind, and hydropower—and improving energy efficiency—is vital if we are to thrive in the 21st century.”
“Net-zero by 2050 is the aim,” said Taalas. “But we will only get there if we double the supply of low-emissions electricity within the next eight years.”
According to climate justice advocates, the pursuit of “net-zero” is inadequate because it is “premised on the notion of canceling out emissions in the atmosphere rather than eliminating their causes.”
As long as corporations and governments are allowed to proceed with the status quo in some places while they fund projects that purportedly curb pollution in other places, critics say, there is no evidence that overall emissions will be sufficiently reduced, meaning that the WMO likely understates the extent to which clean energy production must be scaled up by 2030.
Taalas, for his part, stressed that “time is not on our side, and our climate is changing before our eyes. We need a complete transformation of the global energy system.”
Francesco La Camera, director-general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), echoed Taalas’ message, saying that “now is the time to accelerate the transition to a renewable energy future.”
“Anything short of radical and immediate action will ultimately eliminate the chance of staying on the 1.5°C path,” said La Camera. “The intertwined energy and climate crises have dramatically exposed the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of an economic system heavily reliant on fossil fuels. Advancing the transition to renewables is a strategic choice to bring affordable energy, jobs, economic growth, and a resilient environment to the people and communities on the ground.”
Research published last year found that eradicating greenhouse gas pollution within the next three decades would save tens of millions of lives worldwide. In addition, a 2018 report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate estimated that “bold climate action could deliver at least $26 trillion in economic benefits through to 2030, compared with business-as-usual.”
Despite the immense benefits associated with decarbonization, investment in renewables is woefully inadequate across the globe. Moreover, the amount of international public finance flowing to clean energy production in developing countries is actually declining, from a peak of $24.7 billion in 2017 to $14.2 billion in 2018 to $10.9 billion in 2019.
Even existing pledges “fall well short of what is needed to meet the objectives set by the Paris agreement—limiting global warming to well below 2°C—leaving a 70% gap in the amount of emissions reductions needed by 2030,” says the report. “The 3.7 TW from renewables in 2030 pledged in the 56% of [nationally determined contributions] with quantified renewable power targets, if implemented, represent less than half of what is needed to keep the 2°C goal alive.”
“The radical transformation of the global energy system requires a significant increase in annual investment in energy from just over $2 trillion globally to almost $5 trillion by 2030,” the report notes. “Current levels of investment in renewable energy need to at least triple to put the world on a net-zero trajectory by 2050.”
As the report points out, Africa—which is “already facing severe effects from climate change, including massive droughts, despite bearing the least responsibility for the problem”—has a “huge opportunity to close the gap” in global renewable energy supply.
According to the WMO, “Africa is home to 60% of the best solar resources globally, yet with only 1% of installed photovoltaic (PV) capacity.”
In addition to reducing deadly greenhouse gas pollution, pursuing an ambitious clean energy transition would alleviate the mounting pressure on global water supplies.
As the report explains:
In 2020, 87% of global electricity generated from thermal, nuclear, and hydroelectric systems directly depended on water availability. Meanwhile, 33% of the thermal power plants that rely on freshwater availability for cooling are already located in high water stress areas. This is also the case for 15% of existing nuclear power plants, a share expected to increase to 25% in the next 20 years. Eleven percent of hydroelectric capacity is also located in highly water-stressed areas. And approximately 26% of existing hydropower dams and 23% of projected dams are within river basins that currently have a medium to very high risk of water scarcity.
By contrast, the amount of water used to generate electricity from solar and wind is much lower.
One of the key findings of the report is that increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather—from droughts, wildfires, and heatwaves to floods to devastating winter storms exacerbated by the rapidly warming Arctic—is already jeopardizing the production and distribution of energy around the world, at a time when global demand is growing and projected to keep climbing.
Not only does this underscore how imperative it is to slash planet-wrecking emissions by ramping up the supply of renewables at a much faster pace, says the report, but it also demonstrates the need to invest more in improved durability, including early warning systems and other tools that increase the capacity to of green-powered grids to withstand and recover from stress.
According to the report, only 40% of climate action plans submitted to the United Nations “prioritize adaptation in the energy sector,” and as a result, “climate adaptation-focused investments in the energy sector remain very low, at just over $300 million, tracked per year in 2019-2020.”
“The transition to clean energy calls for investment in improved weather, water, and climate services that can be used to ensure our energy infrastructure is resilient to climate-related shocks and inform measures to increase energy efficiency across multiple sectors,” states the report, which includes case studies detailing how localized efforts are enhancing decision-making.
Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), said that “we urgently need to respond to the growing impact of climate change on energy systems if we are to maintain energy security while accelerating the transition to net-zero.”
“This requires long-term planning and bold policy action to spur investment, which in turn needs to be underpinned by comprehensive and reliable weather and climate data,” said Birol.