Clean Energy for All: Seven reasons why the world is falling short on SDG 7

As a new report warns that the global economy is not on track to deliver on the clean energy targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), edie rounds up some of the headline trends that are shaping the transition to renewable energy and offer a glimmer of hope that targets can still be reached.

The Tracking SDG7: The Energy Progress Report was published on Wednesday (2 May) in a joint effort from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), the World Bank, and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The report tracked progress against the key ambitions of SDG 7, which targets universal access to affordable and modern energy globally by 2030. The aims of Goal 7 include doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency, “substantially” increasing the share of renewables in the global energy mix and ensuring global access to electricity and clean cooking fuels.

However, the new report claims the world is not on track to meet these energy targets for 2030, despite impressive progress in expanding access to electricity in the least developed countries.

“Falling costs, technological improvements and enabling frameworks are fuelling an unprecedented growth of renewable energy, which is expanding energy access, improving health outcomes, and helping to tackle climate change, while also creating jobs and powering sustainable economic growth,” IRENA’s director-general Adnan Z. Amin said.

“At the same time, this tracking report is an important signal that we must be more ambitious in harnessing the power of renewable energy to meet sustainable development and climate goals, and take more deliberate action to achieve a sustainable energy future.”

The global transition to clean energy is being held back by the heat and transport sectors, according to the report, but national efforts to ignite a global shift remain impressive. Here, edie dives deep into the data to bring you seven key statistics of the global energy transformation.

1) Renewables failing to keep pace with consumption

Even though the absolute level of renewable energy consumption has grown by more than 18% since 2010, only since 2012 has the growth of renewables outpaced the growth of total energy consumption. The world is playing catch up with SDG 7 and has been handicapped by historically slow integration.

As of 2015, the world obtained 17.5% of its total final energy consumption from renewable sources, of which 9.6% represents modern forms of renewable energy and the remainder is accounted for by traditional biomass. 

Based on current policies, the global renewable share across all end-uses is expected to reach just 21% by 2030, with modern renewables growing to 15%, falling short of the substantial increase demanded by the SDG7 target.

Globally, energy intensity must decline 2.6% yearly to meet the SDG7 target of doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030. Despite a fall at an accelerated 2.8% in 2015 – the fastest decline since 2010 – the annual average decline for 2010-2015 still fell short of this target by 0.4%.

2) UK fails to surpass global average

The UK has championed its desire to adopt a leadership role in combatting climate change, but its approach to the SDGs has been labelled by some as a “total fail”. This accusation is strengthened by the findings of the report.

The UK failed to achieve the global average of 2.81% renewables mix in transport in 2015 with a proportion of just 2.31%, placing it below Canada, the Netherlands and Spain. 

The UK failed to meet the global average of 22.8% for heat use too, with a renewables share of just 5.5% in 2015. The nation enjoyed a record-breaking year for renewables in 2017, creating hope that future iterations of this report will be more positive, but for a nation that has pledged to lead a clean-energy revolution, the UK isn’t even average at best. The Clean Growth Strategy – still more ambition that tangible targets – offers the best chance for the UK to accelerate efforts in this area.

3) Transport and heat continue to lag

Globally, the consumption of renewable energy in transportation has proportionally increased faster than in either electricity or heat, but from a base far lower than in other end-uses. In 2000, it was 0.5%, in 2015, 2.8%. 

There has been growing evidence of transport as a worldwide problem area in the past three years, with the SDG7 report citing aviation, rail and maritime transport as particular concerns due to “negligible” penetration rates of biofuels.

The Climate Group’s chief executive Helen Clarkson added: “The reduction in the cost of wind and solar power shown in this report is significant. But with 48% of total energy consumption being attributable to transport, this needs to become a real area of focus. It certainly needs to be a joint effort.”

Renewables shares in heat also continued to struggle, growing by just 1% globally between 2010 and 2015, when the total stood at 24.8%.

Meanwhile, the share of renewable energy in electricity worldwide continued to climb to reach an all-time high of 22.8% in 2015 – a rise enabled primarily by new additions of wind energy, which accounted for approximately half of the growth in renewable electricity consumption in 2014–15.

4) Biggest countries aren’t exceeding expectations 

Brazil was the only country among the top 20 largest energy consumers to substantially exceed the global average renewable share in all end uses: electricity, transport and heating. In 2015, its share of renewable energy in heat was 51% (global average 22%); electricity, 74% (global average 23%), and transport, 21.55% (global average 2.81%).

This represented the highest renewables share in transport globally, with Sweden (14.55%) and Finland (11.97%) ranking 2nd and 3rd respectively.

Meanwhile nine of the other 20 largest energy consuming countries have seen their renewable energy shares decline during the period of 2010-2015 – namely Russia and Asian nations.

5) Uptake not leading to access in developing countries

Perhaps surprisingly, the top 10 countries for renewable energy shares across all end-uses are located in Africa, itself a sign of hope.

In 2015, four developing African nations exceed a 90% renewable share in all end uses – namely the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Somalia and Ethiopia.

However, access to this renewable majority remains problematic across the region. Most of the renewables sourced in the continent are used on heat, with the countries continuing to suffer from low electrification rates.

Worryingly, all ten of the countries with the lowest electricity access rates were found to be in Africa, including Burundi, where just 7.25% of the population have access, ranking as the world’s worst. There is a clear imbalance in developing countries between integration of renewables and actual access to them.

6) China’s renewables revolution treading water

From 2010-2015, China’s progress in renewable energy alone accounted for nearly 30% of absolute growth in renewable energy consumption globally. However, its renewables share across all end-sectors still failed to meet the 2015 worldwide average of 17.46%, lagging at 12.41%

While China has been able to make progress despite its large and continuously growing population, it is struggling to find alternatives to coal, despite moves being made to stop or delay work on 151 planned and under-construction coal plants.

For example, China’s renewables share of total final energy consumption fell from 30% in 2000 to 12% in 2015 because traditional biomass use decreased; even though wind and solar increased by 5%. Outside of electricity consumption, just 3.3% of China’s heat consumption is classed as modern,  highlighting a lack of joined-up thinking for the nation’s renewables strategy.

7) A lack of economic alignment

Other than Western Asia, global GDP grew nearly twice as fast as primary energy supply between the five-year time period. Unsurprisingly, developed nations are leading the charge, with the likes of Japan, the UK and China delivering strong cases of improved energy efficiency costs between 2010 and 2015.

Encouragingly, global energy intensity – the amount of energy it takes to produce a single unit of GDP – has been shrinking at a rate of 2.2% annually since 2010, with an accelerated rate of 2.4% predicted between now and 2030.

With costs falling, it is perhaps surprising that more renewables aren’t integrated, but this trend does at least create a viable economic case for more project deployment and further investment to reach Goal 7.

Matt Mace & Sarah George

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