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Last week, Ministers of Energy and top Government officials from most of the world’s largest, energy-hungry countries met in San Francisco for the 7th Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM). The parties shared a palpable sense of optimism following the Paris Agreement (consented to late last year and expected to come into force soon), which put all of their countries on a committed path towards carbon neutrality. Moreover, the evidence is growing that we are in the midst of a clean energy revolution.

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“The Paris Agreement has raised the bar on what countries must do to have a sustainable energy policy, one which delivers not just on energy security, access and affordability; but is also capable of delivering the Paris commitments,” said Joan McNaughton, with the World Energy Council, at the CEM.

This sentiment was accentuated by the release, at the CEM, of the REN21 Renewables Global Status Report and the International Energy Agency’s Energy Technology Perspectives report, which highlighted both the amazing growth of renewable energy and also the key challenges and barriers we need to overcome in order to achieve the ultimate goal: A 100 percent clean energy economy.

Record Year for Renewables

First, the good news. 2015 was a historic year for clean energy, in many ways. We saw huge growth in wind and solar, record investment globally and massive jobs growth in the renewables sector. Moreover, this growth is taking place right where we need it the most – in the developing world. Last year, investment was larger in this sector than than in developed countries. Ensuring that emerging economies such as India, Indonesia and Nigeria use clean energy for power generation is key to ensuring that we avoid skyrocketing emissions and allow for sustainable, and equitable, development.

“New markets for renewable energy emerged across Asia, Africa, and Latin America,” said Arthouros Zervos, chair of REN21 at the CEM. In fact, today, the cheapest wind power is found in Morocco, while the cheapest solar plant is in Dubai. Renewables are truly going global.

Via CEM7

Via CEM7

Impressively, all this happened while the key fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – were at near record-low prices. Few could have imagined that renewable energy could grow and compete under these circumstances.

“This growth occurred despite tumbling global prices for all fossil fuels,” said Zervos. “The power sector is the biggest winner, with renewable energy producing 29 percent of global power.”

What this means is that we’re on the cusp of a genuine revolution. However, many barriers remain, and it will take powerful, global commitments to overcome them.

Accelerating Clean Energy 

The aforementioned progress, though amazing, is still not enough. The carbon budget (how much carbon the planet can emit before it warms an average 1.5 degrees Celsius) is quickly nearing capacity, with some estimates saying we only have five years before we go beyond that point.

“Renewables are not growing as fast as they should be,” said Zervos. “Renewable deployment in all sectors needs to be accelerated.”

The Ivanpah Project is the world's largest operational solar thermal power plant - providing power to 140,000 homes and located in California's Mojave Desert. (Photo courtesy of California Energy Commission)

The Ivanpah Project is the world’s largest operational solar thermal power plant – providing power to 140,000 homes and located in California’s Mojave Desert. (Photo courtesy of California Energy Commission)

To achieve these goals, we need a lot more than just cheaper solar and wind. According to the IEA, several facets are “on track” – such as the massive price drops of renewables, the huge strides made in energy storage and the growing sales for electric vehicles – but other areas are lagging. For example, carbon capture and sequestration systems remain far from being deployed on a large scale, biofuels are still not as carbon friendly as they need to be, and the transport sector remains nearly entirely dependent on fossil fuels.

“Progress is slow, and does not guarantee success,” said Fatih Bird, executive director of IEA, at the CEM. “We need new technology to come into the picture.”

Another major challenge is that the global energy infrastructure remains one focused on distributing, transporting and burning fossil fuels in mostly large, centralized power-generation facilities, with existing grids focused on distributing this energy. Decentralized power generation, and smart grids that move electricity more efficiently and effectively, are key to meeting clean energy goals. Some countries, like China, are ahead of the curve on this. Others, like the U.S., are not.

One point was also clear. We need to hasten the move away from fossil fuels. Despite the pro-clean energy rhetoric at the CEM, many world Governments remain committed to supporting fossil fuels, distorting the market in their favor, and making it harder for renewables to reach their necessary scale.

London's Strata SE1 is one of the first buildings in the world to incorporate wind turbines as part of its structure. © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

London’s Strata SE1 is one of the first buildings in the world to incorporate wind turbines as part of its structure. © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

“Renewables remained at a significant disadvantage in terms of government subsidies, “ said Christine Lins, Executive Secretary of REN21, in a press statement. “For every dollar spent boosting renewables, nearly four dollars were spent to maintain our dependence on fossil fuels.”

In fact, many have identified reducing fossil fuel subsidies as the quickest, most effective short-term measure that countries can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The United States is guilty here, too. Congress – which is flush with donations from the fossil fuel industry – has refused, despite numerous calls, to make any meaningful dent in these subsidies.

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