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Falling clean energy costs an opportunity to boost climate action in COVID-19 recovery packages – joint report

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hits the fossil fuel industry, a new joint report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre and BloombergNEF (BNEF) show that renewable energy is more cost-effective than ever – providing an opportunity to prioritize clean energy in economic recovery packages and bring the world closer to meeting the Paris Agreement goals.

The implied 826 GW of additional non-hydro renewable power capacity, plus the 488 GW of extra hydro dams in government plans, would be far below estimates of what would be needed for the electricity system to contribute its share to achieving global climate goals (graphic courtesy UNEP, Frankfurt School, BloombergNEF).

The report “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2020” analyzes 2019 investment trends, and clean energy commitments made by countries and corporations for the next decade.

It finds commitments equivalent to 826 GW of new non-hydro renewable power capacity, at a likely cost of around US$1 trillion, by 2030. Getting on track to limiting global temperature rise to under 2 degrees Celsius – the main goal of the Paris Agreement – would require the addition of around 3 TW by 2030, the exact amount depending on the technology mix chosen.

The planned investments also fall far below the US$2.7 trillion committed to renewables during the last decade.

Close to US$2.7 trillion was invested globally in renewables excluding large hydro over the 2010-2019 period. With over US$2.4 trillion solar PV and wind accounted for over 90 percent of this investment whereas biomass and waste-to-energy received US$123 billion and biofuels attracted US$28 billion (graphic courtesy UNEP, Frankfurt School, BloombergNEF).

However, the report also shows that the cost of installing renewable energy has hit new lows, meaning future investments will deliver far more capacity. Renewable energy capacity, excluding large hydro-electric dams of more than 50 MW, grew by 184 GW in 2019.

This highest-ever annual addition was 20 GW, or 12 percent, more than the new capacity commissioned in 2018. Yet the dollar investment in 2019 was just 1 percent higher than the previous year, at US$282.2 billion.

The all-in, or levelized, cost of electricity continues to fall for wind and solar, thanks to technology improvements, economies of scale, and “fierce” competition in auctions. Costs for electricity from new solar photovoltaic (PV) plants in the second half of 2019 were 83 percent lower than a decade earlier.

The chorus of voices calling on governments to use their COVID-19 recovery packages to create sustainable economies is growing. This research shows that renewable energy is one of the smartest, most cost-effective investments they can make in these packages. If governments take advantage of the ever-falling price tag of renewables to put clean energy at the heart of COVID-19 economic recovery, they can take a big step towards a healthy natural world, which is the best insurance policy against global pandemics, said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.

Renewable energy has been eating away at fossil fuels’ dominant share of electricity generation over the last decade. Nearly 78 percent of the net new GW of generating capacity added globally in 2019 was in wind, solar, biomass, and waste, geothermal and small hydro.

While dwarfed by wind and solar investment, biomass and waste-to-energy reached US$9.7 billion in 2019. It also recorded the highest year-on-year growth, up 9 percent. Investment in biofuels, however, dropped over 40 percent to around US$0.5 billion in 2019 (graphic courtesy UNEP, Frankfurt School, BloombergNEF).

Investment in renewables, excluding large hydro, was more than three times that in new fossil fuel plants.

Renewables such as wind and solar power already account for almost 80 percent of newly built capacity for electricity generation. Investors and markets are convinced of their reliability and competitiveness. The promotion of renewables can be a powerful engine for the recovery of the economy after the Coronavirus crisis, creating new and secure jobs. At the same time, renewables improve air quality thus protecting public health. By promoting renewable energies within the framework of Coronavirus economic stimulus packages, we have the opportunity to invest in future prosperity, health and climate protection.said Svenja Schulze, Minister of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Germany.

2019 marked many other records, the report finds including:

  • The highest solar power capacity additions in one year, at 118 GW.
  • The highest investment in offshore wind in one year, at US$29.9 billion, up 19 percent year-on-year.
  • The largest financing ever for a solar project, at US$4.3 billion for Al Maktoum IV in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
  • The highest volume of renewable energy corporate power purchase agreements, at 19.5 GW worldwide.
  • The highest capacity awarded in renewable energy auctions, at 78.5 GW worldwide.
  • The highest renewables investment ever in developing economies other than China and India, at US$59.5 billion.
  • A broadening investment, with a record of 21 countries and territories investing more than US$2 billion in renewables.

Commenting on the report findings, Nils Stieglitz, President of Frankfurt School of Finance & Management noted that the energy transition is in full swing, with the highest capacity of renewables financed ever.

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel sector has been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis – with demand for coal- and gas-fired electricity down in many countries, and oil prices slumping. The climate and COVID-19 crises – despite their different natures – are both disruptions that command attention from policymakers and managers alike. Both crises demonstrate the need to increase climate ambition and shift the world’s energy supply towards renewables, said Nils Stieglitz.

The 2019 investment brought the share of renewables, excluding large hydro, in the global generation to 13.4 percent, up from 12.4 percent in 2018 and 5.9 percent in 2009. This means that in 2019, renewable power plants prevented the emission of an estimated 2.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), a substantial saving given global power sector emissions of approximately 13.5 gigatonnes in 2019.

Clean energy finds itself at a crossroads in 2020. The last decade produced huge progress, but official targets for 2030 are far short of what is required to address climate change. When the current crisis eases, governments will need to strengthen their ambitions not just on renewable power, but also on the decarbonization of transport, buildings and industry, ended said Jon Moore, Chief Executive of BloombergNEF.

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