Renewable Revolution Rising, But Ultimate Potential Remains Untapped

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Renewable Revolution Rising, But Ultimate Potential Remains Untapped

The impact of wind and solar could be even greater if the billions in annual subsidies for fossil fuel and nuclear energy were removed, study shows

The rise of solar, wind, and other renewable technologies has helped effect a "landmark decoupling" of economic growth and carbon emissions, says report. (Image: endo_pin/flickr/cc)

While it was a record year for global warming, 2014 was also a banner year for the technologies that could help mitigate climate change.

"Spectacular" growth in the global renewable energy sector helped stave off increased greenhouse gas emissions in 2014, according to the 10th annual Renewables 2015 Global Status Report, released Thursday by the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21).

In fact, the report states, the rise of solar, wind, and other renewable technologies has helped effect a "landmark decoupling" of economic growth and carbon emissions—as the International Energy Agency indicated earlier this year. For the first time in four decades, REN21 explains, the world economy grew in 2014 without a parallel rise in CO2 emissions. 

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Still, the planet keeps getting hotter and scientists warn that if global emissions continue at their current levels, the world will miss its target of keeping warming below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced just this week that last month was the hottest May in modern history.

"Renewable energy and improved energy efficiency are key to limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius and avoiding dangerous climate change," said REN21 chair Arthouros Zervos, who released the new report at the Vienna Energy Forum.

Providing further evidence that the renewables revolution is well underway, the status report from REN21 shows leaps in renewable energy capacity and investment—renewables now account for close to 60 percent of net additions to the world's power capacity, while global new investment in such technologies jumped 17 percent from 2013 to 2014. 

What's more, as Peter Bosshard of International Rivers noted in an op-ed published Friday at Common Dreams, wind and solar power capacity is growing at a much faster pace than that of large hydropower projects (whose environmental footprint is larger).

In early 2015, 164 countries had renewable energy targets and 145 had policies to support the sector. These include many in the developing world that had no such targets a decade ago.

However, the renewable sector's growth "could be even greater if the more than $550 billion in annual subsidies for fossil fuel and nuclear energy were removed," REN21 said in a statement, noting that such subsidies "perpetuate artificially low energy prices for those sources, encouraging waste and impeding competition from renewables."

Elimination of fossil fuel subsidies would "create a level playing field," said REN21 executive secretary Christine Lins, which in turn would "strengthen the development and use of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies."

This week's REN21 report comes on the heels of a study from Stanford University researchers, released earlier this month, which provided a road map for all 50 United States to transition to clean, renewable energy sources.

According to Phys.org, "The 50 individual state plans call for aggressive changes to both and the ways we currently consume , but indicate that the conversion is technically and economically possible through the wide-scale implementation of existing technologies."

"Our plans are to change the energy infrastructure of each and every state in the United States, and, in fact, ultimately, every country of the world, to infrastructures run entirely on wind, water and solar power for all purpose," Stanford's Mark Jacobson said on Democracy Now! in early June. 

Watch the full interview with Jacobson below:

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