Clean Energy Progress Should Pave the Way for an Ambitious Climate Agreement in Paris

December 3, 2015 | 2:16 pm
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

Tomorrow I will be traveling to Paris for COP21, the international climate negotiations. I am going with a sense of optimism and hope that world leaders will reach a fair, ambitious agreement. A major reason for my positive outlook is the tremendous progress we have made in ramping up clean energy and driving down the costs of these technologies, all of which point toward the feasibility of deep cuts in carbon emissions.

Growing renewable electricity deployment and falling costs

Globally, renewable energy resources (hydro and non-hydro) now account for approximately 23 percent of global electricity generation, and for the first time in 2014 carbon emissions remained stable while the global economy grew because of the uptake of renewables and energy efficiency. Renewable energy resources accounted for nearly 60 percent of all new power generation capacity in 2014 (with non-hydro renewables accounting for 48 percent of that), and have continued to outpace deployment of nuclear and fossil fuel resources since 2011.


The costs of solar PV modules dropped 80 percent between 2009 and 2014, while wind turbine prices declined by almost a third over the same period, according to IRENA. Global investment in non-hydro renewable energy reached over $270 billion in 2014, almost 17 percent higher than the year before.

These developments are exemplified in major economies, such as the U.S., China, Germany, and India. And many large companies have also made commitments to rely on renewable energy and drive down emissions.

Global renewable electricity capacity, 2014

Global renewable electricity capacity, 2014

Studies show that deep cuts in emissions are feasible

Several recent studies have shown that there are still pathways to keep the global average temperature increase below 2°C by making deep cuts in our emissions, but it requires robust action from nations. While these studies differ in some of their assumptions about technologies and their modeled results of the mid-century energy mix, the overall message is clear: It is technically and economically feasible to make deep cuts in carbon emissions, provided we put a strong policy framework in place.

  • The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, an international initiative analyzing pathways for steep mid-century emissions reductions in 16 major carbon-emitting countries, released a report today showing that deep decarbonization is technically feasible and consistent with economic growth and population growth.
  • The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) Rethinking Energy report shows that, “Doubling the share of renewable energy by 2030 could deliver around half of the required emissions reductions and, coupled with energy efficiency, keep the average rise in global temperatures below 2 °C.”
  • The IEA’s analysis of a 450ppm pathway shows that a majority of the required emissions cuts can be made by ramping up mature and commercially available technologies, with additional cuts coming from deployment of emerging and new technologies. (See my colleague Pete O’Connor’s recent post on energy breakthroughs.)
  • The Solutions Project at Stanford University just released an analysis showing how 139 countries could get all their energy from renewable sources—wind, water and sun—by midcentury.

While there are differing views on the relative contributions of different types of low-carbon technologies, it’s clear that renewable energy and energy efficiency must play a major role in the global clean energy transition. It’s important that we don’t let differing views on technologies stymie progress toward a common goal that we all share: cutting carbon emissions.

How to accelerate a clean energy transition

We know that the current commitments from countries (INDCs) are not enough to limit the global average temperature increase to 2°C. All the recent studies, and real-world experience to date, show that we need a strong policy framework to accelerate low-carbon energy deployment and ramp up energy efficiency. This includes targets and incentives for renewables and energy efficiency, scaling up public and private sector investments in these resources, investing in R&D, and cutting fossil fuel subsidies to level the playing field for clean energy.

A price on carbon is also critical to sending a market signal to drive low carbon technology deployment, foster innovation, and orient long-term business decisions toward a low-carbon pathway. There are significant synergies with low-carbon energy and public health and sustainable development goals, which should be factored into technology choices.

It’s also critical to recognize that the global clean energy transition must be coupled with providing universal energy access, which is still a major hurdle in developing countries where 1.2 billion people do not currently have access to electricity. Decentralized generation resources provide an exciting opportunity to help close the energy access gap in places where grid-connected electricity costs may remain insurmountably high. They are also very attractive is developed country settings, like in the United States, where rooftop solar is taking off in a big way.

Developing countries will need scaled-up finance to make this low-carbon energy transition a reality, and developed countries must step up to that challenge. Public-private initiatives, such as the recently announced Breakthrough Energy Coalition, can also play an important role.

We can do it… if there is political will

We know we can make significant cuts in carbon emissions while maintaining economic prosperity. There is overwhelming public support for the urgent need for climate action. Business leaders want to play a role in creating a low carbon economy. Many cities and states are doing their part. Now we need national political leaders to deliver a strong agreement in Paris and build on that momentum in the years ahead.