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Accelerating the clean energy transition

By Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment

34710758336_e94fb7a852_oOnly months ago, the world’s biggest lithium battery kicked off a future of more stable and cheaper power in South Australia. In India, the southern state of Tamil Nadu is on track to generate more than half of its power from wind and solar well within the next 10 years. Denmark is meanwhile sometimes producing more power from wind than it needs, while China is banking heavily on both wind and solar – accounting for close to 45 percent of the world’s new solar installations in 2017.

What is abundantly clear is that a future of almost limitless clean energy is perfectly feasible. In addition, this shift will not only bring about the kind of positive climate action we so desperately need to see. There are other positive externalities: the public health benefits of shifting from dirty fossil fuels, more and better paid jobs per dollar invested in renewables, and a level of energy security that could significantly ease global tensions.

Despite this enormous progress, it’s time for all of the G20 to step up action. At the G20 meeting in 2017, global leaders recognized that they cannot go back, and that action on climate change is absolutely critical. While this has been a welcome step, we need to move beyond the global framework, to actions that can help countries go well beyond national commitments.


Some of this is already happening. France’s historic decision to end the sale of diesel and gasoline vehicles by 2040 is one such step. Brazil now has the second greatest number of jobs in the renewable energy space. But we need many more examples, and much more climate leadership to transform our planet.

The Argentinian G20 Presidency has identified three key areas of focus, energy efficiency, renewable energy and the reduction of fossil fuel subsidies. This could not come at a more opportune moment. G20 members consume over 80 percent of global energy and allocate four times more public funding to fossil fuels than to renewables energy. The G20 accounts for 93% of the world’s coal use. This must change.

A recent OECD study has found that energy taxes in many OECD and G20 countries are far too low to help combat global warming. This means we are not enough to reduce energy use and dirty fuels, or to drive a shift towards greater energy efficiency.

We’re not thinking big enough, and the mere fact that we are still having discussions on whether to drill in the Artic or finance coal projects is wrong. In 2017, financing from G20 governments for overseas coal projects reached a five-year high. In contrast, financing was provided to only two solar farms. We are betting on the wrong kind of future.

The alternatives to drilling and digging more fossil fuels are already being played out by several G20 countries, and with great success. China has embraced the philosophy of “Ecological Civilisation”, while India’s prime minister bluntly said it would be a “crime against future generations” not to act decisively now. Both nations are steering a path towards a green economy with greater sustainability. And they’re doing so because it makes sound economic sense.

Perhaps the biggest threat facing the G20 is continued use of coal. I have heard a lot over the years about how coal is absolutely critical to providing millions of people electricity. But this is more myth than truth. Energy for all is and must be a priority for every nation in the world. But we must dispel the assumption that it is coal that will drive progress. This is because many of the people, communities and regions that remain without energy access are so because they are often remote or far-flung. Decentralized or off-grid renewable energy projects may in fact be the quickest and most effective way to bring these people on-line. A continued dependence on coal is a serious challenge to our ability to keep temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius.

Much of the US$ 221 billion global market for energy efficiency investments is concentrated in large G20 nations. The G20 has made remarkable progress on improving the energy intensity of its economies, but for us to make a dent in climate change, this must accelerate even more. Energy efficiency offers the group a tremendous opportunity, but it is not without its challenges. How do we make users opt for the energy efficient choice, over the cheap option? Necessity is the mother of invention, and innovation is the result. And the biggest opportunity will be in the building sector.

On virtually every front the G20 has scripted success. G20 countries today account for an astounding 85 percent of the world’s GDP. People live better than ever before. The G20 has worked hard to successfully resurrect the global financial system after the economic crisis of 2009 and are living proof that we are stronger together than we are alone.

But it is also clear to G20 members that an unsustainable economy is no economy at all. Long-term energy security is a key concern. High levels of pollution and the public health costs that accompany it need to be higher on the agenda. The G20 needs to be in the driver’s seat – on innovating and developing technologies that will leapfrog the world into a low carbon growth path. This includes almost every area of opportunity from renewable energy storage to electric mobility and green buildings. The decisions that the G20 countries make, and the issues that they remain silent on, will have a huge impact on the wealth and fate of our planet.


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