NAJIB SAAB 1/2/2021

Listening to the statements at the annual assembly of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), held in Abu Dhabi last week, one would think, at first glance, that the world has fully entered the era of clean energy and that the problem of carbon emissions has become a concern of the past. Ministers from the 163 member states presented reports detailing commitments and ambitious programs to firmly introduce renewable energy into the energy mix, and most of them outlined actual achievements. As much as a gigantic advancement this represents, something seems to be still missing in order to accelerate the transition.  

Figures presented to the Summit by Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), were alarming. They showed that, even if all countries abide by their current commitments, average temperature will rise by 2.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, which is 1 degree, or 70 percent higher than the limit set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its last report. Scientists stated that an increase of above 1.5 degrees Celsius will have irreversible catastrophic impacts on human life that defy adaptation.  

The logical conclusion may be that the rate of transition is not fast enough and renewable energy sources cannot be a magical solution, if they are not integrated in an overall strategy. Reducing emissions requires managing energy demand, not just increasing production, regardless of the source, which can be achieved by cutting waste and enhancing efficiency. On the other hand, some seemingly glittering numbers mask a different reality. China, for example, which highlighted its position at IRENA’s Assembly as the world’s largest producer of electricity from wind and sun, is still dependent on coal, the most polluting source, for 57 percent of its energy consumption, while most of its remaining energy supplies come from oil and gas. Since 2011, China alone has burned more coal than all other countries of the world, combined.

While China presents its renewable energy figures as a total, it often presents the figures for carbon emissions in terms of per capita share. With a population of about 1.5 billion, it is only natural that absolute renewable energy figures will appear large, while per capita share of emissions show much lower. But China’s emissions are still large even on per capita basis. The country is the leading source of carbon emissions globally, contributing 25 percent, while its population represents 18 percent of the world total. China’s contribution to carbon emissions and pollution exceeds, when measured by the per capita share, the contribution of developing countries by several times, but it is still less than that of the United States and most developed countries, although the gap is narrowing. It is worrying that the principle of ‘shared but differentiated responsibilities’ is being excessively used as a license to pollute.  

The irony is that as China has become a global economic superpower, it still hides behind developing countries to obtain exemptions from commitments to reduce carbon emissions and curb pollution. This was clearly evident in international forums in recent years, as China opted to harbor with the Group of 77, the coalition of developing countries of which it was a founder, while current economic developments moved it to the ranks of rich countries. Equally significant is that the failure of developed countries to provide the promised aid to developing countries has contributed to China’s advances to fill the gap, especially in Africa, turning some developing countries into hostages to huge loans, including supporting the construction of new coal plants. The US exit from the Paris climate agreement had a decisive effect in boosting China’s grand plans.  

However, despite the challenges, the meeting in Abu Dhabi showed an unprecedented commitment from most countries to expand the share of renewable energy, by up to 50 percent in 2030 and 70 percent in 2050. Arab countries were not far from this trend, from Morocco and Tunisia, to Egypt and Jordan, as well as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saudi Arabia’s commitment emerged as one of the most ambitious goals, which is to switch to renewable energy to produce 50 percent of electricity by 2030.

The role of renewable energy in the healthcare sector was a major topic in IRENA discussions, emphasizing bringing electricity to remote areas. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 25 percent of health clinics in developing countries lack access to reliable electricity supplies, or are not connected to networks at all. Aside from operating medical equipment, electricity is necessary to maintain a stable temperature for stored drugs and vaccines. Power cuts lead to the loss of a quarter of the vaccines distributed annually.  

Figures presented at the IRENA meeting showed that the cost of producing electricity from the sun and wind is now the cheapest compared to other sources. In contrast, the share of renewable energies, including hydropower, is still less than 20 percent of the total, with the sun and wind in most countries contributing less than half of it. On the other hand, the last ten years have witnessed a solid increase in renewable energy investments, in parallel with a steady decline in those related to other energy sources, especially coal. What is delaying the rapid transformation is not lack of financing, especially since investing in generating electricity from sun and wind has gone beyond being a pure environmental act, to become an attractive economic option as well. What is hindering the rapid progress at country level is the weakness of policies and laws, and the political, legislative and economic instability, which are essential factors to attract and protect investments.  

Renewable energy will continue to expand its reach around the world, as an attractive option in all aspects. But its contribution to development and mitigation of climate change will remain limited, unless it becomes a part of an integrated policy, mainly based on enhancing efficiency and changing wasteful consumption habits. This leads to rationalizing demand rather than simply increasing production. Policymakers must remember that the goal of shifting to renewable energy is not only to improve the environment, but also to contribute to the elimination of energy poverty and the creation of new jobs. There are more than a billion people around the world, most of them in Asia and Africa, who do not have access to electricity supplies, and they need it no matter where from it comes.  

The transition to renewable and clean energy should not be allowed to be a cover for the creation of new international industrial monopolies, employing such dubious practices as flooding the world markets with solar panels, cheaply produced in factories running on energy generated from the most polluting coal plants. That is blunt political hypocrisy.