'No time for invention': path to net-zero is there for the taking, Irena chief says

Exclusive: Halfway through his four-year term at the renewable energy agency, Francesco La Camera says this is the deciding decade for climate change

“There is no time to reinvent the wheel.”

This is according to Francesco La Camera, director general of the International Renewable Energy Agency, based in Abu Dhabi.

Proven technology for net-zero energy production already largely exists today but it will take political will and nation-led action to reverse climate change, he told The National.

Mr La Camera took up his post in 2019 and is a little over halfway through his four-year term. He joined Irena at a decisive time for climate change and the achievement of the Paris Agreement. He is tasked by the agency to “redefine the structure and operations” to keep its 180 member countries actively engaged in the fight.

The inter-governmental body, now 12 years old, promotes renewable energy and technology and helps countries plan and carry out energy transitions.

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When we look at implementation, we notice it is very far from what is written down on paper
Franceso La Camera, director general of Irena

“At the end of this decade, the world will know if the Paris Agreement will be reached or not,” said Mr La Camera. Political will around the climate change agenda “is much better” than when he took up his post two years ago, he said.

Global renewable energy capacity rose by 10.3 per cent to 2,799 gigawatts in 2020, according to Irena. China and the US, the world’s two biggest economies, were the best-performing countries in terms of renewable energy growth.

Globally, more than 260 gigawatts of wind capacity were added, a 50 per cent increase compared with 2019. Solar energy made up more than 48 per cent of last year’s renewable capacity additions, accounting for 127 gigawatts.

“The reality is overcoming my expectations,” Mr La Camera said of the renewable energy capacity added in 2020.

Over time, countries are also increasing ownership of their climate agendas.

A key piece of the Paris Agreement are the "nationally determined contributions", or NDCs. These are plans that outline climate actions and policies that each nation aims to enforce in response to climate change.

Central to the UN's plan for the NDCs was the concept of national determination. But “a failure of the NDC was the big role of the consultants”, as well as the lack of real buy-in from governments, said Mr La Camera.

“When we look at implementation, we notice it is very far from what is written down on paper,” he said.

To that end, Irena is increasing its efforts to tailor recommendations and projects for regions and nations. In addition to its work with net-zero scenario planning, “there is support for national planning. Doing it in a way that we don’t do consultancy, we work together. It is really important that the planning is owned”.

As an agency that works among governments and the private sector, not as a political organisation, he said the rigour and objectivity of Irena's analysis is what sets it apart from a crowded field of players aiming to set the agenda.

The “future of the agency”, Mr La Camera said, is on an online platform Irena unveiled in 2019 to connect renewable energy project owners, potential financiers or investors, services providers and technology suppliers.

Mr La Camera said the marketplace has fielded more than 200 ideas for projects since its start.

He likened it to zooming in a camera – from the global analysis done by the agency's number crunchers, primarily based in Bonn, Germany, down to the planning and financing of a renewable energy project on the ground and monitoring its output once operational.

He pointed to the recent inauguration of one of the largest solar projects in West Africa and the first renewable energy complex in Togo, which became fully operational earlier this month.

Abu Dhabi, 23 June 2021: The Mohamed Bin Zayed Solar PV Complex, one of the largest solar PV plant in West Africa financed by Abu Dhabi Fund for Development (ADFD) and selected under ADFD-IRENA Project Facility, is now fully operational. The 50-megawatt (MW) project in Blitta, Togo will supply reliable, clean electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in the country to receive a sustainable supply of clean energy. Photo: Abu Dhabi Fund for Development

The 50-megawatt Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed solar power plant, financed under the Irena-ADFD Project Facility, has the capacity to provide electricity to about 160,000 homes and small businesses, significantly reducing the country’s dependence on firewood, charcoal and fuel imports for energy consumption.

“This project is showing that in Africa this [energy transition] is possible,” said Mr La Camera.

Abu Dhabi financed the project and is a climate leader in the region, placing itself “in the middle” of the climate conversation, he said.

Over the past six years, the UAE has led the way in driving down the price of solar energy through some of the most competitive bids on utility-scale projects. Mr La Camera said he believes the region can help lead again in lowering the cost of hydrogen as well.

Record low tariffs for solar power projects among oil-exporting states of the Middle East could allow for the development of low-cost green hydrogen, which refers to the clean fuel produced entirely from renewable sources.

“Renewables are the cheapest source of power,” he said.

Declining costs for renewables are a challenge to coal's dominance as a cheap source of fuel, particularly in developing economies.

Irena is also engaging with the world's biggest economies. India, Indonesia, the US and China are of particular interest because they are “countries that are more like continents".

This month, Irena and China announced that they will prepare a comprehensive energy transition road map to help China achieve its medium- and long-term national renewable and decarbonisation goals.

China, currently the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and biggest oil importer, pledged to hit its carbon dioxide emissions peak by 2030 and has vowed to become carbon-neutral before 2060.

Mr La Camera said the agency is “quite confident” in China's ability to hit its goals.

Globally, Irena forecasts that the transition to net-zero carbon emissions will be dominated by renewable power from wind and solar, green hydrogen and bioenergy.

A combination of different technology is needed to keep the planet on a 1.5°C climate pathway – nothing entirely new is needed, but incremental improvements to efficiency and the will of markets and governments can go a long way in this “decade of action".

Mr La Camera is also a firm believer that the market will not turn back. Investors and the private sector are anticipating the energy transition and are actively looking for investment, allocating capital away from fossil fuels and towards energy transition technology and sources such as renewables.

An analysis of the S&P Clean Energy Index in 2020 by Irena found that clean energy stocks were up by 138 per cent, as compared to the fossil fuel-heavy S&P Energy Index which was down by 37 per cent.

“Will climate change?" Mr La Camera asks. The question is not rhetorical but instead rests on the political will to embrace the "unstoppable" transition to renewable energy, he said.

Another questions lingers: “Will we be in time to win the fight?”

Updated: July 6th 2021, 10:59 AM
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