Beyond renewables: How to reduce energy-related emissions by measuring what matters

(Eco Business, 10 Jun 2019) Despite the uptick in renewable energy usage, global emissions have steadily increased. World Resources Institute’s John Woolard argues that commitments to 100% renewables will not alone curb the worst impacts of climate change.

In the 27 years since the 1992 Rio Climate Summit, the use of renewable energy has increased dramatically and the efficiency of energy use and production has soared. Yet global carbon emissions continued to rise. What happened? Why has no progress been made in reducing carbon emissions despite huge improvements in efficiency and rapid growth in the use of renewable energy? What can be done to achieve meaningful reductions in energy-related emissions of the carbon dioxide heating the planet?

To achieve the rapid emissions reductions needed to avert the worst effects of climate change, policy makers, market regulators, utility companies, corporate energy buyers and climate activists must focus relentlessly on driving down a simple metric: the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of electricity.

Renewable energy, primarily solar and wind, is a technology success story. By the end of 2017, global installed capacity of renewable power topped 1,000 gigawatts (GW), an amount roughly equal to the total installed capacity of the United States (Figure 1). China accounted for 45 per cent of global investment in renewables in 2017and leads the world in installed capacity (334 GW), followed by the United States (161 GW) and Germany (106 GW).

Renewable energy capacity has soared—but carbon emissions continue to increase

The increase in the use of renewable energy—and the commitment by some U.S. corporations to use only renewables—is laudable. But despite the massive increase in renewable generation in the United States and elsewhere, the world has not significantly reduced annual emissions, with the result that cumulative emissions have increased steadily since 1992 (Figure 2). Over the last decade, global emissions from fossil fuels averaged 34 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GT CO2) per year. If current trends continue, the world is set to breach the carbon dioxide threshold of 450 parts per million before 2040. The surge in renewables notwithstanding, continuation of the current trajectory will lock in at least 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) warming in the next few decades—with catastrophic consequences (Carbon Brief 2016).

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Eco Business, 10 Jun 2019: Beyond renewables: How to reduce energy-related emissions by measuring what matters