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Climate change and rising interest in renewable energy

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“IN my country, we feel the impact of climate change more than most. Our temperatures have risen by approximately 2 degrees Celsius over the past century, which has seen a significant increase in extreme weather. In the past two decades alone, we have had to deal with 10 droughts”, said President Emmerson Mnangagwa at the recent United Nations COP26 climate change summit.

Zimbabwe is among countries that are focusing more on renewable energy, especially with regards solar projects. According to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report published on 1 December, renewables will account for about 95% of the increase in global power-generation capacity from now to the end of 2026, with solar power alone providing about half of the increase.

Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, said: “This year’s record renewable energy additions are yet another sign that a new global energy economy is emerging. The high commodity and energy prices we are seeing today pose new challenges for the renewable industry, but elevated fossil fuel prices also make renewables even more competitive.”

The recent COP26 summit could not hammer out an agreement on a global carbon tax, at a time when many countries are either not taxing carbon usage, or taxing enough to help end its usage at a much-needed faster pace given the fast-unfolding climate crisis. Daron Acemoglu highlighted this concern in a recent article titled “Climate change vs. the Sino American cold war” as follows: “To reduce emissions and stop the extraction and combustion of existing coal, oil, and gas reserves, there is no substitute for a global carbon tax and sustained support for the development of green technologies. 

“The European Union has taken a first step toward a global carbon tax by proposing not just a domestic tax on fossil fuels but also a carbon border adjustment mechanism (tariff). For the carbon tax to have a meaningful impact, it will need to be set sufficiently high. Right now, carbon taxes within the EU range from €116 ($134) per metric tonne of carbon dioxide in Sweden to less than €0.10 per tonne in Poland, with some major economies, such as Italy, having no carbon tax at all.

 But even with a robust European carbon tax and tariff regime, there is need for the US and China to adopt and enforce similar policies in order to keep climate change in check.

“Moreover, as Jayati Ghosh pointed out, reluctance by rich, advanced countries in terms of moving away from fossil fuel in her recent article ‘The rich world’s climate hypocrisy’ whereby COP26 only saw ‘A group of 20 countries, including the US, pledged to end public financing for ‘unabated’ fossil-fuel projects, including those powered by coal, by the end of 2022. But the prohibition applies only to international projects, not domestic ones.”

China, for example, is still investing in new coal plants, building more than one per week in 2020. India has nearly doubled its coal consumption over the last decade, while refusing to commit to a meaningful net-zero emissions target.

And Russia is doing almost nothing, claiming that its forests, tundra and swamps will absorb enough carbon to render it carbon neutral by 2060. The US, too, is proving unequal to the challenge.

It can afford to invest much more in renewable energies, and to support the broader global transition to cleaner technologies. Yet it is still subsidising the fossil-fuel industry, rather than taxing carbon emissions and regulating the big energy companies that bear most of the blame for the problem. That said, Iran, Russia, Brazil, China, and India are even worse offenders when it comes to fossil-fuel subsidies. 

Of concern however is quick adoption and commitment by poor countries of carbon emission reductions. “My government has now committed to reducing emissions by 40% before 2030. This builds on a previous commitment for a 33% emissions reduction set in 2017.

The new target will see greenhouse gas emissions curbed to 44.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e) by 2030, a reduction of about 30 million tonnes. One of our routes to achieve that is through significant expansion of renewable energy with the aim of having 26.5% of all energy from renewable sources by 2030. This includes investment in hydro energy, solar energy and biomass”, said President Mnangagwa. 

Indeed, there is growing evidence of the negative impact of pollution on economic growth, but during the early stages of development, economies have to pollute to grow. 

Yet, while the growth in renewable energy overall is indeed impressive, more needs to be done overall in terms of lesser usage of fossil fuels, as pointed out by Fiona Harvey: “However, this level of growth is still only about half that required to meet net zero carbon emissions by mid-century”.

Having said that, while this lack of emphasis is seen in terms of taxing, investing in, and subsidising the fossil fuel industry, at the same time, the renewable energy sector has also witnessed sharp increase in its growth.

The IEA pointed this out: “It has been another record year for renewable energy, despite the Covid-19 pandemic and rising costs for raw materials around the world. About 290GW (gigawatts) of new renewable energy generation capacity, mostly in the form of wind turbines and solar panels, has been installed around the world this year, beating the previous record last year.

 On current trends, renewable energy generating capacity will exceed that of fossil fuels and nuclear energy combined by 2026.”

Moreover, the IEA pointed out some of the main performers in the renewable energy sector, saying China installed the most new renewable energy capacity this year, and is now expected to reach 1 200GW of wind and solar capacity in 2026, four years earlier than its target of 2030. China is the world’s biggest carbon emitter, but the government was reluctant at COP26 to commit to the strengthening of its emissions-cutting targets, which many observers had hoped for. 

China’s rapid expansion of renewable energy suggested the country could reach an emissions peak “well before 2030”. In India, the growth of renewables is outstanding, supporting the government’s newly announced goal of reaching 500GW of renewable power capacity by 2030 and highlighting India’s broader potential to accelerate its clean energy transition. 

Zimbabwe is also among the countries investing in renewable energy with many solar projects at various levels of development. However, continued energy crisis and high energy prices seem to be the major drivers for renewables development in Zimbabwe rather than the climate change fight. 

*About the writer: Tinashe Kaduwo is a researcher and economist. He writes in his personal capacity. Contact [email protected] whatsapp +263773376128

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