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Falling clean energy costs provide opportunity to boost climate action in COVID-19 recovery packages

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As COVID-19 hits the fossil fuel industry, a new report shows that renewable energy is more cost-effective than ever – providing an opportunity to prioritize clean energy in economic recovery packages and bring the world closer to meeting the Paris Agreement goals.

Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2020 – from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre and BloombergNEF (BNEF) – analyzes 2019 investment trends, and clean energy commitments made by countries and corporations for the next decade.

It finds commitments equivalent to 826 GW of new non-hydro renewable power capacity, at a likely cost of around USD 1 trillion, by 2030 (1GW is similar to the capacity of a nuclear reactor). Getting on track to limiting global temperature rise to under 2 degrees Celsius – the main goal of the Paris Agreement – would require the addition of around 3,000GW by 2030, the exact amount depending on the technology mix chosen. The planned investments also fall far below the USD 2.7 trillion committed to renewables during the last decade.

However, the report shows that the cost of installing renewable energy has hit new lows, meaning future investments will deliver far more capacity. Renewable energy capacity, excluding large hydro-electric dams of more than 50 MW, grew by 184 GW in 2019. This highest-ever annual addition was 20 GW, or 12 percent, more than the new capacity commissioned in 2018. Yet the dollar investment in 2019 was just 1 per cent higher than the previous year, at USD 282.2 billion.

The all-in, or levelized, cost of electricity continues to fall for wind and solar, thanks to technology improvements, economies of scale and fierce competition in auctions. Costs for electricity from new solar photovoltaic plants in the second half of 2019 were 83 per cent lower than a decade earlier.

“The chorus of voices calling on governments to use their COVID-19 recovery packages to create sustainable economies is growing,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “This research shows that renewable energy is one of the smartest, most cost-effective investments they can make in these packages.”

“If governments take advantage of the ever-falling price tag of renewables to put clean energy at the heart of COVID-19 economic recovery, they can take a big step towards a healthy natural world, which is the best insurance policy against global pandemics,” Andersen said.

Renewable energy has been eating away at fossil fuels’ dominant share of electricity generation over the last decade. Nearly 78 per cent of the net new GW of generating capacity added globally in 2019 was in wind, solar, biomass and waste, geothermal and small hydro. Investment in renewables, excluding large hydro, was more than three times that in new fossil fuel plants.

“Renewables such as wind and solar power already account for almost 80 per cent of newly built capacity for electricity generation,” said Svenja Schulze, Minister of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Germany. “Investors and markets are convinced of their reliability and competitiveness.”

“The promotion of renewables can be a powerful engine for the recovery of the economy after the Coronavirus crisis, creating new and secure jobs,” she added. “At the same time, renewables improve air quality thus protecting public health. By promoting renewable energies within the framework of Coronavirus economic stimulus packages, we have the opportunity to invest in future prosperity, health and climate protection.”

2019 marked many other records, the report finds:

  • The highest solar power capacity additions in one year, at 118 GW.
  • The highest investment in offshore wind in one year, at USD 29.9 billion, up 19 per cent year-on-year.
  • The largest financing ever for a solar project, at USD 4.3 billion for Al Maktoum IV in the United Arab Emirates.
  • The highest volume of renewable energy corporate power purchase agreements, at 19.5GW worldwide.
  • The highest capacity awarded in renewable energy auctions, at 78.5GW worldwide.
  • The highest renewables investment ever in developing economies other than China and India, at USD 59.5 billion.
  • A broadening investment, with a record 21 countries and territories investing more than USD 2 billion in renewables.

Nils Stieglitz, President of Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, said: “We see the energy transition is in full swing, with the highest capacity of renewables financed ever. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel sector has been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis – with demand for coal- and gas-fired electricity down in many countries, and oil prices slumping.

“The climate and COVID-19 crises – despite their different natures – are both disruptions that command attention from policy makers and managers alike. Both crises demonstrate the need to increase climate ambition and shift the world’s energy supply towards renewables.”

The 2019 investment brought the share of renewables, excluding large hydro, in global generation to 13.4 per cent, up from 12.4 per cent in 2018 and 5.9 per cent in 2009. This means that in 2019, renewable power plants prevented the emission of an estimated 2.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, a substantial saving given global power sector emissions of approximately 13.5 gigatonnes in 2019.

“Clean energy finds itself at a crossroads in 2020,” said Jon Moore, Chief Executive of BloombergNEF. “The last decade produced huge progress, but official targets for 2030 are far short of what is required to address climate change. When the current crisis eases, governments will need to strengthen their ambitions not just on renewable power, but also on the decarbonization of transport, buildings and industry.

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Are we on track to meet the SDG9 industry-related targets by 2030?

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A new report published by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), Statistical Indicators of Inclusive and Sustainable Industrialization, looks at the progress made towards achieving the industry-related targets of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 9 of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The report is primarily based on the SDG9 indicators related to inclusive and sustainable industrialization, for which UNIDO is designated as a custodian agency, showing the patterns of the recent changes in different country groups.

Six years after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 SDGs, there has been increasing demand for information on whether the SDG targets could be reached, and what actions should governments take to accelerate progress. The UNIDO report introduces two new tools developed by UNIDO to help countries measuring performance and progress towards SDG9 industry-related targets: the SDG9 Industry Index and SDG9 progress and outlook indicators. The SDG9 Industry Index benchmarks countries’ performance on SDG-9 targets over 2000-2018 for 131 economies. In addition, the report develops two measures to answer the main questions:

  • Progress: how much progress has been made since 2000?
  • Outlook: how likely is it that the target will be achieved by 2030?

The global COVID-19 pandemic has inevitably had a negative toll on the progress towards reaching the SDG9 indicators, but the extent of the long-term impact remains to be seen. Industrialized countries continue to dominate global manufacturing industry, but their relative share has gradually declined over the past decade. In 2010, industrialized economies made up 60.3% of global production, which has decreased to 50.5% in 2020. China has been the largest manufacturer, now accounting for 31.7% of global production. This is a trend that has been reinforced by the pandemic.

Progress for the least developed countries (LDCs), at the heart of the 2030 Agenda, is a different story. While economic theory and countries’ experiences across the world have established that industrialization is an engine of sustainable growth, progress among LDCs remains very diverse. Asian LDCs are poised to double their share of manufacturing in GDP and thus meet SDG target 9.2, but African LDCs have stagnated.

SDG9 Industry Index

The SDG-9 Industry Index, consisting of five dimensions, covers three targets and five indicators and assigns a final score to countries. In 2018, the top ten consisted of exclusively industrialized economies, with Taiwan, Province of China, Ireland, Switzerland, the Republic of Korea and Germany making up the top five. In general, industrialized economies perform best in all dimensions of the Index.

The countries at the bottom of the ranking are LDCs, in particular those located in sub-Saharan Africa. Although some African countries have been displaying impressive growth rates, growth has been driven by an extended commodity boom and foreign capital inflows, while industrialization and structural transformation have stagnated. Additionally, substantial data is lacking for a significant amount of the countries. In the SDG9 Industry Index, only 24 out of 54 African countries are included, from which only eight are LDCs. It is clear that national statistics offices need strengthening, as data availability helps countries formulate, review and evaluate their development plans and programmes.

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ASEAN Survey Calls for Joint Action for an Inclusive and Sustainable Digital Economy

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The World Economic Forum launches today the ASEAN Digital Generation Report 2021, a special edition of its annual ASEAN youth survey report series, which examines the impact of the pandemic on personal income, savings and the role of digitalization in the region’s economic recovery. The report’s survey, conducted with close to 90,000 participants from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam, also flags the gaps needed to build a more inclusive and sustainable economy, namely: access to technology, digital skills training for all generations, and measures to enhance online trust and security.

The survey’s findings confirm e-commerce’s role as the key driver of growth in the ASEAN region. Wholesale and retail trade sector had the highest proportion of people starting new businesses (50%), while the logistics sector had the highest share of people finding new jobs (36%).

Notably, respondents from these two sectors are among those who also reported a decline in income. This could be because when people experienced a fall in income, they started new businesses in the wholesale and retail trade sector to leverage e-commerce opportunities.

A majority of respondents have adapted to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic through significant digital adoption. Across ASEAN, 64% of respondents have digitalized 50% or more of their tasks, as have 84% of respondents who are owners of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Respondents who reported greater levels of digitalization of their work and business reported lower levels of income decline. Similarly, business owners with an online presence were more likely to report an increase in savings (24%) and income (28%) compared to those without one (18%).

However, the benefits of digitalization are unevenly spread across the region. Those who are less “digitalized” found further digital adoption less appealing. As in 2020, respondents continued to point to expensive or poor internet quality or digital devices as the top barriers to digital adoption. While less digitalized respondents pointed to lack of digital skills as a key additional obstacle, more digitalized respondents pointed to trust and security concerns instead.

The identified obstacles were consistent across all six countries surveyed. As such, multistakeholder and regional joint actions are needed to unlock the full potential of ASEAN nations in the digital age and narrow these gaps.

“Through this annual survey, we wanted to understand the views, priorities and concerns of the digital users in ASEAN and gain statistical insights that will help inform and shape relevant regional policy,” said Joo-Ok Lee, Head of the Regional Agenda, Asia-Pacific, World Economic Forum. “The survey showed improving the quality and affordability of ASEAN digital infrastructure, equipping the ASEAN workforce with appropriate skills and enhancing people’s trust in the digital environment are crucial to bring ASEAN over the tipping point for inclusive and sustainable digital transformation.”

“One of the key findings was that digitalization has a ‘flywheel’ effect wherein users who had first experienced the benefits of technology were more eager to deepen their levels of digitalization,” added Santitarn Sathirathai, Group Chief Economist at Sea, a Singapore-based global consumer internet company.“It is critical for the public and private sector to work even more closely to lower any friction and barriers, which may prevent the positive digitalization momentum from taking place. Through this, digitalization can enable post- pandemic recovery in an inclusive and sustainable way.”

Between July and August 2021, the survey polled participants from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam. Some 77% of respondents are youths aged between 16 and 35, 56% female and 10% business owners.

This year’s edition continues tomonitor the impact of the pandemic on respondents, explores how the ongoing digitalization has benefited their life and society in the real economy, what stands in their way of further digitalization and maximization of such benefits, and how to tackle the identified obstacles.

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Trade can play a pivotal role in addressing climate change

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Economies in the Asia-Pacific region need to urgently reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including to maintain their trade competitiveness as carbon taxes at borders threaten to rise, according to a new United Nations report.  

Around 16 million new jobs could be created in clean energy, energy efficiency, engineering, manufacturing and construction industries in the Asia-Pacific region, more than compensating for the estimated loss of five million jobs by downscaling industries. 

The Asia-Pacific Trade and Investment Report 2021 was jointly launched on Monday by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). 

Climate-smart policies have a significant cost, particularly for carbon-intensive sectors and economies, but the cost of inaction is far greater. Some estimates are as high as $792 trillion by 2100, if the Paris Agreement targets are not met. 

Risks and competitiveness 

Launching the report, Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary of ESCAP, remembered that key trade partners are considering border taxes on carbon. 

Ms. Alisjahbana said this causes “strong concerns on the effects on the developing countries since many economies in the region are at risk of being pushed out of key markets”. 

For her, the roll-out of COVID-19 recovery packages could provide opportunities to invest in low-carbon technologies and sectors.  

Room for improvement 

The Asia-Pacific region is currently the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but the new report reveals significant room to make these economies greener. 

For example, there are still more barriers to trade in environmental goods than in carbon-intensive fossil fuels and fuel subsidies continue to exist.  

According to the report, the “timely abolishment” of these two policies, and replacement with more targeted measures, could provide much-needed finance and reduce emissions. 

Other proposals are trade liberalization in climate smart and other environmental goods, transition to climate friendly transportation, incorporation of climate issues in trade agreements, carbon pricing and carbon border adjustment taxes. 

For the Bangladesh Commerce Minister, Tipu Munshi, Honourable, these measures “are very much befitting given the crises” the world is facing. 

Positive and negative effects 

In a joint message, New Zealand’s Minister for Trade and Export Growth, Hon Damien O’Connor, and the Minister of Climate Change, Hon James Shaw, said that “one of the most substantial roadblocks in the way of cutting emissions is fusil fuel subsides”. 

UNCTAD chief Rebeca Grynspan, highlighted “the links between trade, investment and climate change are complex”.  

She explained that “the key is to ensure that the positive effects of trade and investment are maximized, such as by promoting trade and investment in renewable energy and low-carbon technologies, while minimizing the adverse effects, like by digitalizing trade and transport systems”.  

According to the report, regional trade agreements can also help, and this change has started to happen. The report points to a general trend towards more environmental provisions in these agreements. 

The Asia-Pacific Trade and Investment Report 2021is the first to examine the impact of upcoming border carbon adjustment in the region.  

It is also the first time an index evaluates climate-smart trade and investment policies. 

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