Although there has been much progress in the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency, and expanding energy access over the past decade, the world is not on track to meet international climate goals established under the Paris Agreement, or international goals for sustainable development.
We are facing a climate crisis: the IPCC 2018 Special Report on 1.5°C found that roughly a decade remains to keep global warming below this level and avoid the worst effects of climate change. Most countries are still subsidising the consumption of fossil fuels, and fossil fuel consumption subsidies increased 11% in 2017.
Urgent action is needed now to change our energy systems. Moreover, we will never meet the objectives under UN Sustainable Development Goal 7 for increasing renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy access if we continue down our current energy path.
Why are renewable energies important for reaching climate goals?
Renewable energy is central to achieving these international goals. Using renewables (as oppose to fossil fuels) brings other advantages and opportunities, ranging from environmental to socio-economic and political.
Combatting climate change. The burning of fossil fuels for energy results in a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. Most sources of renewable energy result in little to no emissions, even when considering the full life cycle of the technologies.
Reducing air pollution and improving public health by decreasing pollution and emissions. Worldwide increases in fossil fuel-based road transport, industrial activity, and power generation (as well as the open burning of waste in many cities) contributes to elevated levels of air pollution. In many developing countries, the use of charcoal and fuelwood for heating and cooking also contributes to poor indoor air quality.
Bringing added advantages. Renewables can offer lower costs and stable energy prices. There also are opportunities for the development of local industry, and increased job opportunities. Renewables can bring increased reliability and resilience of the energy system and energy supply, including resilience to weather-related impacts of climate change. For example, after hurricanes Irene and Sandy hit the US east coast in 2012, locations within the New York metropolitan area began investing in renewables and microgrids to help prevent power shortages during future storms.
Why are renewable energies important for reaching SDGs?
Providing access to energy quickly and at least cost. In many parts of the world, renewables represent the lowest-cost source of new power generation technology, and costs continue to decline. Solar PV has experienced the most rapid cost declines, as module prices have fallen more than 90% since 2010.
Increasing energy security. Evolving energy markets and geopolitical uncertainty have moved energy security and energy infrastructure resilience to the forefront of many national energy strategies. Security of supply is a serious concern in energy markets worldwide, from the European Union and the United States to Egypt and India. This is also an issue for cities: the Ukraine city of Zhytomir adopted a target for 100% renewable electricity by 2050, citing energy security as a key factor.
Supporting community involvement and expanding energy democracy. Cities are using renewable energy to provide local populations with the opportunity to participate in municipal initiatives. Examples include cities taking ownership of infrastructure for more direct community or municipal control, or through community energy projects. As part of its plan to generate 20% of electricity demand locally by 2050, Paris (France) is making public spaces and rooftops available to a local co-operative for the installation of solar PV plants, which also allows residents to invest in the co-op.
Opportunities are plentiful for increasing renewable energy in heating, cooling, and transport. Renewables can meet heating demands in buildings, including through solar thermal water heaters, biomass boilers, and the use of heat pumps. In industry, renewables (solar) can be used for industrialheating and cooling processes, such as food processing and pulp and paper. Hydrogen produced with renewables electricity can meet the needs of high-heat intensive industrial processes in the iron and steel and chemical industries. Reducing the energy demand of buildings and industry also is key to transitioning to a renewables-based energy system, so an integrated policy approach to renewable energy and energy eﬀiciency is fundamental.
Renewables in transport include sustainable biofuels, high-percentage biofuel blends and drop-in biofuels. Renewable electricity can power the world’s growing fleet of electric vehicles. Car batteries can be used as storage units so that the electricity can be used at a later time. Renewable electricity also can be used to produce electro-fuels, such as hydrogen to fuel long-haul transport, aviation and shipping. A focus on reducing overall fuel demand in the transport sector is critical and can be accomplished through policies that promote energy eﬀiciency and conservation.