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Developed Economies Aren't Investing Enough in Renewable Energy

While investment in renewable energy is up in developing countries, it's actually down in developed economies, according to a U.N. report.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In the midst of some terrible global news this week, there is at least one bright spot: According to a United Nations Environmental Program report, investment in renewable energy is at an all-time high, and, for the first time, investment in developing countries topped those in developed economies.

Those investments should remove about 1.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions—a "quite substantial" reduction, says report co-author Ulf Moslener, though a small bite out of the roughly 35 gigatonnes spewed out last year. Moslener adds that "If we want to cut emissions, we have to have new technologies or we need to burn less" coal, oil, and gas.

First, the good news. Investments in everything from research and development to new power plants totaled $286 billion in 2015, according to the report, which was prepared in collaboration with Bloomberg New Energy Finance and researchers at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management's UNEP Collaborating Centre. That's a bit over the nominal high of $279 billion in 2011, though, after adjusting for inflation, it's a few billion short.

Investment in developing countries topped those in developed economies.

The vast majority of the money, $266 billion, was spent on new power-generating capacity, twice what was spent on new coal- and gas-fueled power plants. Among the new additions were 118 gigawatts of solar and wind power, and overall renewables made up slightly more than half of all new generating capacity in 2015, the report says.

There's bad news too of course. While investment in renewable energy is up in developing countries (and overall), it's actually down in developed economies. The United States expanded its stake in renewables by $44 billion in 2015, a 19 percent increase over last year, and Japan's investment stayed level, but European investments fell by 21 percent from $62 billion in 2014 to $49 billion last year, continuing a downward trend that began in 2011.

(Incidentally, large hydroelectric plants—dams producing more than 50 megawatts—often don't count as renewable, and didn't for the purposes of the UNEP report, but made up about 22 percent of new energy investments in 2015 and about 16 percent of energy production worldwide.)

One surprise, at least to those who don't follow energy markets closely: China. The nation is a leader in renewable energy investments, having spent $102.9 billion last year, or about one-third of the global total spent on renewable energy in 2015. As one of the world's largest manufacturers, China has also been moving, albeit slowly, toward using one industry's waste as another's inputs, with the ultimate aim of creating what's been called a circular economy.

What does all this mean for climate change? While there's more solar, wind, and other renewable power than ever, the planet still gets only about 10 percent of its energy from non-hydroelectric renewable sources. And while the planet added 134 gigawatts of non-hydro renewable power capacity last year, it also added 82 gigawatts worth in new coal and gas power plants—not what we need to keep climate change in check.


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