LONDON (AlertNet) - Boosting the use of renewable energy may be the fastest option for the world to reduce carbon emissions given the slow pace of international talks to address climate change, according to the head of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
Adnan Z. Amin, IRENA's director-general, told AlertNet on the sidelines of the latest round of U.N. climate negotiations in Doha last week that mitigating heat-trapping emissions is an urgent task, but the global process aimed at achieving this has become "extraordinarily complex".
The climate conference in gas-rich Qatar, which has the world’s highest emissions per capita, agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol until 2020, but most major emitting nations did not sign up for the second period, and few states volunteered new pledges to curb their emissions.
As political efforts lag behind, the business case for cutting emissions from the power sector by switching to cleaner sources, such as solar, wind and geo-thermal energy, is becoming stronger thanks to technological advances and falling costs, Amin said.
"(This) is creating an opportunity for a leapfrog in the energy sector that could probably be the quickest way to reduce carbon emissions, so our conviction is that renewable energy has to be one of the major solutions," Amin said. Energy efficiency is another key way to mitigate climate change, he added.
Energy generation contributes about 40 percent of global greenhouse gases. Renewable sources have grown to supply 16.7 percent of global energy consumption, according to the REN21 Renewables 2012 Global Status Report.
Total investment in renewable power and fuels increased by 17 percent in 2011 to a record $257 billion, with solar attracting nearly twice as much investment as wind, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). But the pace slowed from 2010, mainly due to rapidly falling prices for renewable energy equipment and severe pressure on fiscal budgets in the developed world, it said.
MIDDLE EAST POTENTIAL
Amin emphasised that decarbonising energy production will only happen if there is an economic rationale for doing so. He noted that the economic case for switching to renewable energy has become compelling - even in fossil-fuel-rich countries in the Arab region.
Oil giant Saudi Arabia, for example, has said it plans to produce 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, and install a huge 40 gigawatts of solar capacity by 2032.
Abu Dhabi has a renewables goal of 7 percent of energy by 2020, and launched an initiative several years ago to invest in innovative green technology around the world and build a low-carbon city designed by architect Norman Foster.
Qatar, which hosted the Nov. 26-Dec. 8 climate change talks, disappointed many by failing to announce a target for emissions reductions during the conference. But it did reveal plans for a new solar power plant, due to come into operation in 2018, partly for desalinating water supplies. It also said it planned to build a climate change research institute in partnership with the Potsdam Institute.
Amin said energy demand is expected to nearly triple in the Gulf region by 2030, which means Arab countries could become net importers of energy - a "frightening prospect" for some, he said.
This, together with the potential for a huge market for renewable energy across the Middle East and North Africa and stretching as far as Europe, is tipping the balance in favour of clean power sources, he added.
"Potentially (Gulf states) can be energy economies into the future, even not on the basis of fossil fuels," he said.
INVESTORS SHY OF AFRICA
Africa - where nearly 600 million people lack access to electricity - is widely regarded as another part of the world with major potential for increased adoption of renewable energy. But during the Doha talks, UNEP head Achim Steiner lamented the difficulty of attracting investment in the sector.
"I watch every day how African countries that are ready to go into a green energy revolution faster, further and more effectively than any industrialised country are punished by the fact that they are disadvantaged in the world's capital markets," he told an event on the sidelines of the climate talks.
African governments have to pay more to raise funds, and development finance institutions are reluctant to invest in projects they see as high risk, he added.
Nonetheless, Kenya is one example where renewable energy has taken off, with plans to double its energy generation capacity in the next four years, largely through wind and geothermal plants, Steiner noted.
Amin, a Kenyan national and former high-level U.N. official, said larger-scale investments in Africa have started to happen, but to attract more private funding it is important to improve governance, including policy, regulatory and legal frameworks. IRENA is working with its member states to help strengthen the enabling environment for investors, he added.
"In Africa, you have a very powerful economic case for this investment, and we have to find the recipe that enables that to happen. It's naive to expect people to put their money in places where they don't think it's safe or they won't make money. We have to create the conditions where they know it's safe, they can win, and the host government can win," he explained.
Plans are being eyed for a clean energy corridor running from Ethiopia to southern Africa, which could create a huge regional network, he said. And African energy ministers are now starting to grasp the opportunities.
"As an African, I think we have to take responsibility for ourselves. And it's not that we have to feel disappointed because big investors are not throwing money at us - we have to make the business case and if necessary invest our own money to make the future," he said.