Using solar power and green hydrogen, the road ahead can look bright

With a switch to renewables, 2021 could define the future

A picture taken on January 16, 2021, shows solar panels used to generate renewable energy at the Sustainability Pavilion during a media tour at the Dubai Expo 2020, a week ahead of its public opening, in the United Arab Emirates. The six-month world fair, a milestone for the emirate which has splashed out $8.2 billion on the eye-popping venue in the hope of boosting its soft power and resetting the economy, will now open its doors in October 2021. / AFP / Karim SAHIB
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When we look back at the history of global development, the year 2015 will be remembered as a turning point. It was a year during which both the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement were established. Both those events marked a period of collective global intent to bend the curve of rising emissions and reverse the world's growing inequalities. It was a year of renewed multilateralism, of hope and ambition.

But while history may look back favourably on 2015, it will also indicate how we fell short of delivering promises in the years that followed. The challenges of climate and sustainable development have never been more acute. Close to 800 million people still live in darkness and without reliable energy. Carbon emission have risen to record levels for three of the last four years. Add to that, Covid-19 exposed fragilities of an unsustainable and vulnerable global economy.

If ever there was a need for significant adjustment in our trajectory, it is now.

We can address many of our immediate and medium-to long-term challenges by prioritising energy system transformation. For decades, energy has powered growth and enabled prosperity. But as we tackle unique challenges, our energy system must evolve. A renewables-driven transformation is both an indispensable part of sustainable growth and catalyst for an immediate and robust economic recovery.

Wind, solar and geothermal energy, complemented by green hydrogen and modern bioenergy can also move the world towards climate stability and greater resource security. The Eleventh assembly of The International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) and the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week will further reinforce these benefits and encourage states, cities and corporations to exploit them, immediately.

Wind turbines are silhouetted against the rising sun Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, near Spearville, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Wind turbines silhouetted against the rising sun on January 13, Kansas, US. AP

Examples from around the world and right here in the UAE are evidence that renewable energy solutions are routinely out-competing fossil fuels on costs and are deployable at large scale. In April last year, Abu Dhabi secured 2 gigawatts of solar energy for a record 1.35 cents per kilowatt hour. Similarly, Solar and wind are leading us towards an era of the cheapest electricity in history.

The UAE is aiming for a 23.5 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030

Renewables are now actively displacing both new and existing coal power. Irena estimates that by the end of this year, up to 1,200GW of existing coal-fired capacity will cost more to operate than new utility-scale solar photovoltaic will cost to install.

These market developments are nothing short of revolutionary. Around 35 per cent of today’s global electricity supply is renewable and the total absolute generation capacity has doubled in a decade, but there is still work to be done.

To meet global goals, by 2030, this share needs to increase to just under 60 per cent and rise again to 90 per cent by mid-century.

It is possible, but we have entered crucial year. Between now and COP26 in November, it is critical that national governments fully account for renewables’ potential in climate commitments and align climate goals with concrete energy plans and investments.

The global pandemic has put many things in perspective, not least the importance of renewables. As the economic downturn ravaged oil markets, and the low electricity demand reduced fossil fuel-based generation, renewables displayed remarkable resilience.

In the EU and UK, for instance, coal-based power generation fell by over a quarter in the first three months of 2020, compared to 2019, because of falling demand due to the coronavirus. In contrast, renewable energy reached a 43 per cent share of the electricity mix.

These opportunities are increasingly being reflected in country-level climate ambition. Canada, the UK and Korea are just a few countries targeting net-zero economies by mid-century, bolstered by renewable energy. The UAE too has recently updated its nationally determined contribution, aiming for a 23.5 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030, underpinned by clean and renewable energy, energy efficiency and emerging clean technologies. That amounts to a carbon reduction of about 70 million tonnes.

Yet, this moment of need calls for an unprecedented response. The evidence shows us that transforming the global energy system will offer significant socioeconomic benefits – from job creation and growth in gross domestic product, to improved food and water security. It is a fundamental element of the sustainable development agenda and a prerequisite for the achievement of almost all its goals – including climate safety.

If we are to offer future generations anything like the opportunities afforded to us, we must consider sustainability and move towards it in everything we do and all the choices we make. While 2015 was indeed a year of great hope, to transform that hope into reality, 2021 must be the year when we leave the age inequity behind us.

Francesco La Camera is director general of The International Renewable Energy Agency