Who’s Winning the Clean Energy Race?

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by Shravya Reddy of The Climate Reality Project

© 2007 Flickr/doublecool CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I spend much of my time studying carbon pollution trends, analyzing growing evidence of global warming, and assessing the impacts of a warmer climate. Thus, I recently found myself in agreement with scientists when they moved the symbolic doomsday clock closer to midnight (planetary catastrophe) in part because of global inaction on climate change. At the same time, I remain optimistic about our collective ability to face the crisis. Why? Because even as we’re racing against time to combat climate change, we’re also moving forward in the clean energy race.

Did you know that 2011 was the first year in which global investment in renewable energy was greater than investment in fossil fuel power plants? There are many complex factors motivating countries to invest more in clean energy. A number of European nations were first-movers, and embraced renewable energy in a big way a decade ago when the EU’s objectives included addressing climate change and creating opportunities for economic growth through innovation.

For many nations, the primary objectives of increasing installed clean energy capacity are achieving energy security by ending dependence on foreign oil, and ensuring reliable, widespread energy access for their people. For some others, it is the desire to reduce the chances of costly disasters from fossil fuel extraction (such as the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico) or nuclear energy (such as the meltdown at Fukushima in Japan). And for some countries, the impetus is the realization that dirty fossil fuels will get more costly making alternative sources of energy more economically viable. Whatever the motivation, the fact is that clean energy – especially energy from renewable sources – is one of the most powerful weapons against carbon pollution.

© 2009 Flickr/Uncleweed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

So, how are countries faring in the clean energy race? Until a few weeks ago, the best performer on investment was China, followed by Germany and then the U.S, according to one analysis. Trends in 2010-2011 showed the U.S. falling behind in terms of installed clean energy capacity as well as the level of investment. In the solar arena, China ramped up its 2015 target by 50%. China is gearing up to invest 440 billion RMB (approximately $68.9 billion) in solar in 2011-2015. Germany installed four times as much solar capacity as the U.S. in all of 2011, nearly half of which was added in just December alone. And this was done at almost half the American price. A second analysis focused on attractiveness for renewable energy investment. It put the U.S. in second place, behind China but ahead of Germany, India and Italy.

Like all races, however, nothing remains constant. Last week, things suddenly changed, with a report that the U.S. has now overtaken China in terms of renewable energy investment during 2011. U.S. investment grew 33% in one year, to $55.9 billion, more than China’s $47.4 billion. This is primarily because the last phase of clean energy investments from President Obama’s economic stimulus package was recently implemented.

When you put the investments of all countries together, the best news for the climate is that global investment in renewable energy in 2011 grew by 5% over the last year to $260 billion, a five-fold increase since 2004!

Clean energy investment is more than a race among nations. It is also a race against time. As the impacts of climate change become more apparent and more severe, it is clear that more and more countries are making a commitment to clean energy. Nearly 100 countries now have domestic renewable energy targets (as do most U.S. states. Countries with strong domestic climate change policies, including clean energy development, will attract more investment, build more new industries and technologies, and create jobs faster than those lagging behind. Does your country get this? Where does your country stand in terms of overall renewable energy capacity or investment? Find out, and then urge your leaders to surge forward in the clean energy race.

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