For environmental and equity reasons, renewable energy has become a global imperative – a means of transforming economies from fossil fuels to sustainable energy, and as a means to providing modern energy services to those currently without.
Access to Clean Energy
Access to basic, clean energy services is essential for sustainable development and poverty eradication, and provides major benefits in the areas of health, literacy and equity. Simply put, the developing world needs more access to energy while at the same time the world as a whole needs to rely on less polluting forms of energy. More than 1.6 billion people live without access to electricity and 2.4 billion lack modern energy services for cooking and heating. Millions more are connected to the grid but experience poor power quality and frequent power outages. Women, the elderly and children will benefit the most from access to renewable energy technologies as they are most often burdened with the collection of traditional fuels, the pumping of water and exposure from harmful emissions from traditional cooking methods, which is the leading cause of respiratory illness.
Clean energy services therefore have a critical role in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The UN Commission on Sustainable Development has called access to renewable energy a “prerequisite” for halving poverty by 2015. International cooperation in the area of renewable energy is needed to help fill the gap and improve energy equity.
Climate Change and Conventional Energy
Added to the need for addressing renewable energy for development are climate change and the fact that we have reached peak oil or will within the next 30 years. Fossil fuels, large hydro dams and nuclear energy have all been sources of conflict and are predicted to be at the core of future wars. Energy is becoming the focus of several international negotiations although ironically has no permanent home within the United Nations and is predominantly dealt with by major international institutions that represent sectoral interests of the traditional carbon-based energy system (such as OPEC, G8 and the International Energy Agency). International cooperation to expand renewable energy, a relatively conflict-free and secure energy source, is increasing but needs greater political will in order to transition effectively from a fossil-fuel based economy.
Who are the Leaders?
The German government was well placed to take the lead and coordinate the first international conference on renewable energy as they have become world leaders in renewable energy by using sophisticated feed-in laws (which guarantee interconnection to the grid and provide negotiated premiums for all renewable energy options). Today the German government expects to meet 20% of their electricity demands using renewable energy by 2020 and 65% of their electricity needs by 2050.
Other countries are also taking significant steps in regards to renewable energies. Policy targets exist in at least 45 countries worldwide including developing countries. India is a world leader in wind energy and has launched an ambitious target to bring electricity to 112,000 rural villages in the next decade, partly with renewable energy technologies such as biomass gasifiers. China currently leads the world in solar hot water production and recently passed a milestone Renewable Energy Law. China has targets of 10 percent primary energy and 12.5 percent of power capacity by 2020. In 2003, South Africa set a target of 10 TWh of additional final energy from renewables by 2013. The European Union met its 2010 regional targets of 21 percent of electricity and 12 percent of total energy, and is well on the way to surpassing its 2020 targets. In less than 10 years Spain went from having no experience in wind energy to becoming the world’s second largest wind power leader. Denmark is notable in that it currently meets 20% of its electricity production with wind energy and is planning to increase its use of renewable energy to 50 per cent. Despite these impressive examples, renewable energy still represents only 3% of the world’s energy mix.
Leadership at home often leads to leadership abroad. In terms of international cooperation, Germany, Denmark and Holland are at the forefront in terms of official development assistance (ODA) supporting renewable energy programs. In January 2009, 72 countries lead by Germany established the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). This is the first international energy agency with the exclusive mandate to promte the rapid global transition to renewable energy and help all countries participate in and benefit from this transition. To read more about IRENA visit http://www.irena.org/irena.htm.
Another collaborative initiative is the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP). REEEP is a coalition of progressive governments, businesses and organizations committed to accelerating the development of renewable and energy efficiency systems. Initiated at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002 by the UK Government, the partnership is supported by a number of governments with Canada recently coming on board.