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COVID-19 Intensifies the Urgency to Expand Sustainable Energy Solutions Worldwide

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Despite accelerated progress over the past decade, the world will fall short of ensuring universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy by 2030 unless efforts are scaled up significantly, reveals the new Tracking SDG 7: The Energy Progress Report released today by the International Energy Agency (IEA) the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), the World Bank, and the World Health Organization (WHO).

According to the report, significant progress had been made on various aspects of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 prior to the start of the COVID-19 crisis. This includes a notable reduction in the number of people worldwide lacking access to electricity, strong uptake of renewable energy for electricity generation, and improvements in energy efficiency. Despite these advances, global efforts remain insufficient to reach the key targets of SDG 7 by 2030.

The number of people without access to electricity declined from 1.2 billion in 2010 to 789 million in 2018, however, under policies that were either in place or planned before the start of the COVID-19 crisis, an estimated 620 million people would still lack access in 2030, 85 percent of them in Sub-Saharan Africa. SDG 7 calls for universal energy access by 2030.

Other important elements of the goal also continue to be off track. Almost 3 billion people remained without access to clean cooking in 2017, mainly in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Largely stagnant progress since 2010 leads to millions of deaths each year from breathing cooking smoke. The share of renewable energy in the global energy mix is only inching up gradually, despite the rapid growth of wind and solar power in electricity generation. An acceleration of renewables across all sectors is required to move closer to reaching the SDG 7 target, with advances in heating and transport currently lagging far behind their potential. Following strong progress on global energy efficiency between 2015 and 2016, the pace has slackened. The rate of improvement needs to speed up dramatically, from 1.7 percent in 2017 to at least 3 percent in coming years.

Accelerating the pace of progress in all regions and sectors will require stronger political commitment, long-term energy planning, increased public and private financing, and adequate policy and fiscal incentives to spur faster deployment of new technologies An increased emphasis on “leaving no one behind” is required, given the large proportion of the population without access in remote, rural, poorer and vulnerable communities.

The 2020 report introduces tracking on a new indicator, 7.A.1, on international financial flows to developing countries in support of clean and renewable energy. Although total flows have doubled since 2010, reaching $21.4 billion in 2017, only 12 percent reached the least-developed countries, which are the furthest from achieving the various SDG 7 targets.

The five custodian agencies of the report were designated by the UN Statistical Commission to compile and verify country data, along with regional and global aggregates, in relation to the progress in achieving the SDG 7 goals. The report presents policymakers and development partners with global, regional and country-level data to inform decisions and identify priorities for a sustainable recovery from COVID-19 that scales up affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy. This collaborative work highlights once more the importance of reliable data to inform policymaking as well as the opportunity to enhance data quality through international cooperation to further strengthen national capacities. The report has been transmitted by SDG 7 custodian agencies to the United Nations Secretary-General to inform the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s annual review.

Key highlights on SDG7 targets

Please note that the report’s findings are based on international compilations of official national-level data up to 2018 while also drawing on analysis of recent trends and policies related to SDG 7 targets.

Access to electricity: Since 2010, more than a billion people have gained access to electricity. As a result, 90 percent of the planet’s population was connected in 2018. Yet 789 million people still live without electricity and despite accelerated progress in recent years, the SDG target of universal access by 2030 appears unlikely to be met, especially if the COVID-19 pandemic seriously disrupts electrification efforts. Regional disparities persist. Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Asia and South-eastern Asia are approaching universal access but Sub-Saharan Africa lags behind, accounting for 70 percent of the global deficit. Several large access-deficit countries in the region have electrification growth rates that are not keeping up with population growth. Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have  the largest deficits, with 85 million and 68 million unelectrified people, respectively. India has the third largest deficit with 64 million unelectrified people, although its rate of electrification outpaces population growth. Among the 20 countries with the largest access deficits, Bangladesh, Kenya, and Uganda showed the greatest improvement since 2010, thanks to annual electrification growth rates in excess of 3.5 percentage points, driven largely by a comprehensive approach that combined grid, mini grid and off-grid solar electrification.

Clean cooking: Almost three billion people remained without access to clean fuels and technologies for cooking, residing mainly in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Over the 2010 to 2018 period, progress has remained largely stagnant, with the rate of increase in access to clean cooking even decelerating since 2012 in some countries, falling behind population growth. The top 20 countries lacking access to clean cooking accounted for 82 percent of the global population without access between 2014 and 2018. This lack of clean cooking access continues to have serious gender, health, and climate consequences that affect not only the achievement of SDG target 7.1, but also the progress towards several other related SDGs. Under current and planned policies, 2.3 billion people would still be deprived of access to clean cooking fuels and technologies in 2030. The COVID‑19 pandemic is likely to swell the toll of prolonged exposure of women and children to household air pollution caused by mainly using raw coal, kerosene or traditional uses of biomass for cooking. Without prompt action, the world will fall short of the universal cooking access goal by almost 30 percent. Greater access to clean cooking was achieved largely in two regions of Asia. From 2010 to 2018, in Eastern Asia and South-eastern Asia the numbers of people lacking access fell from one billion to 0.8 billion. Central Asia and Southern Asia also saw improved access to clean cooking, in these regions the number of people without access dropped from 1.11 billion to 1.0 billion.

Renewables: The share of renewables in the global energy mix reached 17.3 percent of final energy consumption in 2017, up from 17.2 percent in 2016 and 16.3 percent in 2010. Renewables consumption (+2.5 percent in 2017) is growing faster than global energy consumption (+1.8 percent in 2017), continuing a trend in evidence since 2011. Most of the growth in renewables has occurred in the electricity sector, thanks to the rapid expansion of wind and solar power that has been enabled by sustained policy support and falling costs. Meanwhile, the use of renewables in heating and transport is lagging. An acceleration of renewables across all sectors will be needed to achieve SDG target 7.2. The full impact of the COVID-19 crisis on renewables is yet to become clear. Disruption to supply chains and other areas risks delaying deployments of wind and solar PV. The growth of electricity generation from renewables appears to have slowed down as a result of the pandemic, according to the available data. But they so far appear to be holding up much better than other major fuels such as coal and natural gas.

Energy efficiency: Global primary energy intensity – an important indicator of how heavily the world’s economic activity uses energy – improved by 1.7 percent in 2017. That is better than the 1.3 percent average rate of progress between 1990 and 2010 but still well below the original target rate of 2.6 percent and a marked slowdown from the previous two years. Specific metrics on energy intensity in different sectors indicate that improvements have been fastest in the industry and passenger transport sectors, exceeding 2 percent since 2010. In the services and residential sectors, they have averaged between 1.5 percent and 2 percent. Freight transport and agriculture have lagged slightly behind. Achieving SDG target 7.3 for energy efficiency will require the overall pace of improvement to accelerate significantly to around 3 percent a year between 2017 and 2030. But preliminary estimates suggest that the rate remained well below that level in 2018 and 2019, making an even more substantial increase in the coming years necessary to reach the SDG 7 target.

International financial flows: International public financial flows to developing countries in support of clean and renewable energy doubled since 2010, reaching $21.4 billion in 2017. These flows mask important disparities with only 12 percent of flows in 2017 reaching those most in need (least developed countries and small island developing states). To accelerate renewable energy deployment in developing countries, there is a need for enhanced international cooperation that includes stronger public and private engagement, to drive an increase of financial flows to those most in need – even more so in a post-COVID-19 world.

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Achieving Net Zero Electricity Sectors in G7 Members

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G7 members are well placed to fully decarbonise their electricity supply by 2035, which would accelerate the technological advances and infrastructure rollouts needed to lead global energy markets towards net zero emissions by 2050, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency. The report was requested by the United Kingdom, which holds the G7 Presidency this year.

The pathway laid out in the report – Achieving Net Zero Electricity Sectors in G7 Members – underscores how the G7 can serve as first movers, jump-starting innovation and lowering the cost of technologies for other countries while maintaining electricity security and placing people at the centre of energy transitions.

The new report builds on the IEA’s landmark Roadmap to Net Zero by 2050 to identify key milestones, challenges and opportunities for G7 members. Following on from June’s G7 Summit, it is designed to inform discussions at the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, for which the UK also holds the Presidency. 

At the G7 Summit, the leaders of Canada Germany, France, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States – plus the European Union – committed to reach “an overwhelmingly decarbonised” power system in the 2030s and net zero emissions across their economies no later than 2050.

The G7 now accounts for nearly 40% of the global economy, 36% of global power generation capacity, 30% of global energy demand and 25% of global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Its clean energy transition is already underway, with coal making way for cleaner options. The electricity sector now accounts for one-third of the G7’s energy-related emissions, down from a peak of nearly two-fifths in 2007. In 2020, natural gas and renewables were the primary sources of electricity in the G7, each providing about 30% of the total, with nuclear power and coal close to 20% each.

Reaching net zero emissions from electricity would require completing the phase-out of unabated coal while simultaneously expanding low emissions sources of electricity, including renewables, nuclear, hydrogen and ammonia. According to the IEA’s pathway to net zero by 2050, renewables need to provide 60% of the G7’s electricity supply by 2030, whereas under current policies they are on track to reach 48%.

The G7 has an opportunity to demonstrate that electricity systems with 100% renewables during specific periods of the year and in certain locations can be secure and affordable. At the same time, increased reliance on renewables does require the G7 to lead the way in finding solutions to maintain electricity security, including seasonal storage and more flexible and robust grids.

In the IEA’s pathway to net zero by 2050, innovation delivers 30% of G7 electricity sector emissions reductions to 2050, which will require international collaboration while also creating technology leadership opportunities for G7 countries. Mature technologies like hydropower and light-water nuclear reactors contribute only about 15% of the reductions in the IEA pathway. About 55% come from deploying technologies that either still have huge scope to grow further, such as onshore wind and solar PV, or in early adoption phase, such as heat pumps and battery storage. Technologies still in development, such as floating offshore wind, carbon capture and hydrogen, would deliver another 30%.

The new report underscores that people must be placed at the centre of all clean electricity transitions. Decarbonising electricity could create as many as 2.6 million jobs in the G7 over the next decade, but as many as 300,000 jobs could be lost at fossil fuel power plants, with profound local impacts that demand strong and sustained policy attention to minimise the negative impacts on individuals and communities. Household spending on energy should decline by 2050, as rising spending on electricity is more than offset by lower expenses for coal, natural gas and oil products. Governments must foster efficiency gains and structure energy tariffs for consumers and businesses so that all households can benefit from these cost savings.

“G7 members have the financial and technological means to bring their electricity sector emissions to net zero in the 2030s, and doing so will create numerous spill-over benefits for other countries’ clean energy transitions and add momentum to global efforts to reach net zero emissions by 2050,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. “G7 leadership in this crucial endeavour would demonstrate that getting to electricity sectors with net zero emissions is both doable and advantageous, and would also drive new innovations that can benefit businesses and consumers.

We have decided to take the path towards climate neutrality. This can only be achieved together – with joint and decisive action,”said Peter Altmaier, Germany’s Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy. “Our way towards climate neutrality is ambitious, but necessary. We need to act together with clear, joint and decisive action. The energy sector plays clearly a key role on our way to climate neutrality. Solutions are at hand, such as the exit from coal-fired power generation in Germany and other countries. The IEA report shows how the G7 can live up to its pioneering role in this regard a matter that will continue to be topical during the German G7 presidency in 2022.

In this critical year of climate action ahead of COP26, I welcome this report, which sets out a roadmap for the G7 to meet the commitment, made earlier this year, to accelerate the transition from coal to clean power,” said COP26 President-Designate Alok Sharma. “The report also highlights the huge jobs and growth opportunities that this decade could bring, from scaling-up renewables and improving energy efficiency to driving digital solutions and deploying critical technologies.

We welcome the IEA’s report on achieving net zero electricity sectors in the G7. These countries should provide leadership in the energy transition,said UN High Level Climate Action Champions Gonzalo Munoz and Nigel Topping. “Decarbonising electricity is essential to keep 1.5 degrees alive, as well as to provide the power for electrification of other sectors. Key G7 milestones in the report include phase out of unabated coal and reaching 60% renewable share of electricity by 2030 and overall net zero electricity emissions by 2035. The private sector stands ready to support this effort.

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Sustainable transport key to green energy shift

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With global transport at a crossroads, government leaders, industry experts, and civil society groups are meeting in Beijing, China, for a UN conference to chart the way forward to a more sustainable future for the sector, and greater climate action overall. 

The three-day UN Sustainable Transport Conference, which opened on Thursday, will examine how transportation can contribute to climate response, economic growth and sustainable development. 

It is taking place just weeks before the COP26 UN climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland. 

In remarks to the opening, UN Secretary-General António Guterres underlined what is at stake. 

“The next nine years must see a global shift towards renewable energy. Sustainable transport is central to that transformation,” he said.  

The move to sustainable transport could deliver savings of $70 trillion by 2050, according to the World Bank.   

Better access to roads could help Africa to become self-sufficient in food, and create a regional food market worth $1 trillion by the end of the decade. 

Net-zero goal 

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how transport is “far more than a means of getting people and goods from A to B”, the UN chief said.

Rather, transport is fundamental to implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change, both of which were “badly off-track” even before the crisis. 

The Paris Agreement aims to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but the door for action is closing, he warned. 

“Transport, which accounts for more than one quarter of global greenhouse gases, is key to getting on track. We must decarbonize all means of transport, in order to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 globally.” 

A role for everyone 

Decarbonizing transportation requires countries to address emissions from shipping and aviation because current commitments are not aligned with the Paris Agreement. 

Priorities here include phasing out the production of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2040, while zero emission vessels “must be the default choice” for the shipping sector. 

“All stakeholders have a role to play, from individuals changing their travel habits, to businesses transforming their carbon footprint,” the Secretary-General said. 

He urged governments to incentivize clean transport, for example through regulatory standards and taxation, and to impose stricter regulation of infrastructure and procurement. 

Safer transport for all 

The issues of safety and access must also be addressed, the Secretary-General continued. 

“This means helping more than one billion people to access paved roads, with designated space for pedestrians and bicycles, and providing convenient public transit options,” he said. 

“It means providing safe conditions for all on public transport by ending harassment and violence against women and girls, and reducing deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents.” 

Making transport resilient 

Post-pandemic recovery must also lead to resilient transport systems, with investments going towards sustainable transport, and generating decent jobs and opportunities for isolated communities. 

“Public transport should be the foundation for urban mobility,” he said. “Per dollar invested, it creates three times more jobs than building new highways.” 

With much existing transport infrastructure, such as ports, vulnerable to extreme climate events, better risk analysis and planning are needed, along with increased financing for climate adaptation, particularly in developing countries. 

Mr. Guterres stressed the need for effective partnerships, including with the private sector, so that countries can work together more coherently. 

“The transformative potential of sustainable transport can only be unleashed if improvements translate into poverty eradication, decent jobs better health and education, and increased opportunities for women and girls. Countries have much to learn from each other,” he said. 

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Decisive action by governments is critical to unlock growth for low-carbon hydrogen

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Governments need to move faster and more decisively on a wide range of policy measures to enable low-carbon hydrogen to fulfil its potential to help the world reach net zero emissions while supporting energy security, the International Energy Agency says in a new report released today.

Currently, global production of low-carbon hydrogen is minimal, its cost is not yet competitive, and its use in promising sectors such as industry and transport remains limited – but there are encouraging signs that it is on the cusp of significant cost declines and widespread global growth, according the IEA’s Global Hydrogen Review 2021.

When the IEA released its special report on The Future of Hydrogen for the G20 in 2019, only France, Japan and Korea had strategies for the use of hydrogen. Today, 17 governments have released hydrogen strategies, more than 20 others have publicly announced they are working to develop strategies, and numerous companies are seeking to tap into hydrogen business opportunities. Pilot projects are underway to produce steel and chemicals with low-carbon hydrogen, with other industrial uses under development. The cost of fuel cells that run on hydrogen continue to fall, and sales of fuel-cell vehicles are growing.

“It is important to support the development of low-carbon hydrogen if governments are going to meet their climate and energy ambitions,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director, who is launching the report today at the Hydrogen Energy Ministerial Meeting hosted by Japan. “We have experienced false starts before with hydrogen, so we can’t take success for granted. But this time, we are seeing exciting progress in making hydrogen cleaner, more affordable and more available for use across different sectors of the economy. Governments need to take rapid actions to lower the barriers that are holding low-carbon hydrogen back from faster growth, which will be important if the world is to have a chance of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.”

Hydrogen is light, storable and energy-dense, and its use as a fuel produces no direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases. The main obstacle to the extensive use of low-carbon hydrogen is the cost of producing it. This requires either large amounts of electricity to produce it from water, or the use of carbon capture technologies if the hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels. Almost all hydrogen produced today comes from fossil fuels without carbon capture, resulting in close to 900 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, equivalent to the combined CO2 emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia.

Investments and focused policies are needed to close the price gap between low-carbon hydrogen and emissions-intensive hydrogen produced from fossil fuels. Depending on the prices of natural gas and renewable electricity, producing hydrogen from renewables can cost between 2 and 7 times as much as producing it from natural gas without carbon capture. But with technological advances and economies of scale, the cost of making hydrogen with solar PV electricity can become competitive with hydrogen made with natural gas, as set out in the IEA’s Roadmap to Net Zero by 2050.

Global capacity of electrolysers, which produce hydrogen from water using electricity, doubled over the last five years, with about 350 projects currently under development and another 40 projects in early stages of development. Should all these projects be realised, global hydrogen supply from electrolysers – which creates zero emissions provided the electricity used is clean – would reach 8 million tonnes by 2030. This is a huge increase from today’s level of less than 50 000 tonnes – but remains well below the 80 million tonnes required in 2030 in the IEA pathway to net zero emissions by 2050.

Practically all hydrogen use in 2020 was for refining and industrial applications. Hydrogen can be used in many more applications than those common today, the report highlights. Hydrogen has important potential uses in sectors where emissions are particularly challenging to reduce, such as chemicals, steel, long-haul trucking, shipping and aviation.

The broader issue is that policy action so far focuses on the production of low-carbon hydrogen while the necessary corresponding steps that are required to build demand in new applications is limited. Enabling greater use of hydrogen in industry and transport will require much stronger policy measures to foster the construction of the necessary storage, transmission and charging facilities.

Countries with hydrogen strategies have committed at least USD 37 billion to the development and deployment of hydrogen technologies, and the private sector has announced additional investment of USD 300 billion. But putting the hydrogen sector on path consistent with global net zero emissions by 2050 requires USD 1 200 billion of investment between now and 2030, the IEA estimates.

The Global Hydrogen Review lays out a series of recommendations for near term-action beyond just mobilising investment in research, production and infrastructure. It highlights that governments could stimulate demand and reduce price differences through carbon pricing, mandates, quotas and hydrogen requirements in public procurement. In addition, international cooperation is needed to establish standards and regulations, and to create global hydrogen markets that could spur demand in countries with limited potential to produce low-carbon hydrogen and create export opportunities for countries with large renewable energy supplies or large CO2 storage potential. 

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