By: Mohamed El-Ashry

Let me start with the simple fact that “development is not possible without energy and sustainable development is not possible without sustainable energy.” There is broad consensus that the current path of global energy development is not sustainable in economic, environmental, or social terms.

Twenty-five years ago, in 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development, better known as the Brundtland Commission, issued the report :Our Common Future.” The report introduced the concept of sustainable development which requires that people make their living without destroying the natural resources and ecosystems necessary for meeting their needs and those of future generations.

Today, despite some progress, sustainable development remains a generally agreed concept, but not a day-to-day, on the ground, practical reality especially in the energy sector. Most of the unsustainable trends the Brundtland Commission warned about in 1987 remain and in some cases accelerating. For example, humanity’s annual requirement for natural resources is about double what it was then, and carbon dioxide emissions are 40% higher. As global population grows from 7 billion to almost 9 billion by 2040, and as the number of middle-class consumers increases by 3 billion over the next 20 years, the demand for resources will rise exponentially. By 2030, the world will need at least 50 percent more food, 35 percent more energy, and 30 percent more water – all at a time when environmental boundaries are placing new limits on supply.

The production and use of unsustainable energy contribute more than any other human activity to the degradation of the environment and the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The world’s energy needs will be almost one-third higher in 2030 than they are now and future energy development will determine how quickly CO2 levels continue to rise and by how much. According to McKinsey & Company, more than 70 percent of the world’s energy infrastructure needed by 2030 is yet to be built, and most of it will be in developing countries.

Decisions made today on the sustainability of future energy systems will profoundly influence our ability to successfully improve air pollution and health conditions, and mitigate climate change in the next 3 or 4 decades. In 2009, fossil fuels accounted for 81 percent of global total primary energy, and CO2 from energy production and use represents about 65 percent of global emissions. To meet the carbon cuts scientists calculate are needed by 2020, the IEA says, the world needs to generate 28% of its electricity from renewable sources and 47% by 2035. Currently, renewables make up about 16% of global electricity supply.

According to REN21’s 2012 Renewables Global Status Report, the last six years have seen remarkable growth in the deployment of renewable energy technologies throughout the world, including during the global recession. Energy investment grew by a whopping 630% between 2004 and 2010. In 2011, despite the sluggish global economy, investment in renewable energy was $257 billion. On a global basis, net investment in renewable power capacity exceeded investment in fossil-fuel power by some $40 billion. The solar sector experienced the strongest growth, helped by declining prices and government support. The price of photovoltaic (PV) modules fell by close to 50 percent during 2011 and now stands 75 percent lower than three years ago.

Thomas Edison must be smiling from above. Eighty-one years ago, in 1931, he met with Henry Ford, who had invented the gasoline-powered car, and told him: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power. I hope we don’t wait until oil runs out before we tackle that.”
Wind power, continued to lead other renewable sources in its growth rate and climbed in 2011 to a new record, with more than 80 countries now harnessing the wind.

A remarkable development on the world scene is the change in the geographic spread of renewable energy. Adoption of these technologies is no longer confined to the developed world. More than half of the existing renewable power capacity is in the developing world, especially in Asia. China, thanks to its national plan to increase renewable energy to 15% of its total energy consumption by 2020, now leads in several indicators of market growth. In 2010, China was the top installer of wind turbines and solar thermal systems and was the top hydropower producer. China is also establishing cap-and-trade schemes for seven major cities and provinces – not because of international commitments, but because it wants to drive more investments and technological change. India is fifth worldwide in total existing wind power capacity and is rapidly expanding many forms of rural renewables, such as biogas and solar PV. And Brazil produces virtually all of the world’s sugar-derived ethanol and has been adding new hydropower, biomass, and wind power plants, as well as solar heating systems.

To date, the growth in renewable energy has largely been policy-driven. According to REN21’s Renewables Global Status Report, public policies and capacity targets that support and promote renewable energy are in place in more than 119 countries. At the national, state, provincial, and municipality levels, such policies have had a major impact on driving renewable energy markets, investments, industry development, and social benefits.

Renewable power also plays a significant role in enhancing access by the poor to modern energy services. More than 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity and at least 2.7 billion people are without clean cooking facilities. More than 95% of these people are in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and south-east Asia.

In recent years, shale gas has rapidly transformed America’s energy outlook and may spread to other parts of the world. Not just America but parts of Europe, China, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, and several African countries sit atop large quantities of gas. Shale now contributes a third of America’s gas supplies and by 2035 could be nearly half.

On November 12, 2012, The IEA released its 2012 World Energy Outlook. It reported that the United States is on track to surpass Saudi Arabia in oil production by 2020. The US will become a net exporter of natural gas by 2020 and will be almost self-sufficient in energy, in net terms, by 2035. The IEA also reported that global energy demand will grow by more than one-third to 2035, and that China, India, and the Middle East will account for 60% of that growth.

The Arab region has a vast abundance of renewable energy resources and, according to Booz & Co, is capable of generating more than 3 times the world’s total current power demand. Clearly the region has the opportunity to harness renewable energy to support economic growth and energy security. The rich renewable energy resources in the region can go a long way towards meeting its own growing demand. Through renewable energy the region also has an opportunity to achieve a globally important position in international markets.

In recent years, some parts of the Arab region have demonstrated a growing momentum of support for renewable energy deployment with an increasing number of targets and supporting policies. In order to meet these ambitious targets there is also a need to enhance cross-border collaborations and national, regional and foreign investments in the region.

Dr. Mohamed El-Ashry is chairman of the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21)