The race towards renewables: a global exploration of countries using renewable energy
An introduction to renewable energy
One of the concerns many of us share is climate change. In October 2021, over 75% of adults in the UK said they were worried about the global impact of climate change. This is no surprise given the reports put forward by scientists and climate change experts.
The science-led assessments from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently warned that climate change is happening – and it’s happening fast. In fact, emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are responsible for approximately 1.1°C of warming from 1850 to 1900. And over the next 20 years, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming.
This rise in temperature will result in “increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons,” according to IPCC. Anything above a 2ºC rise is thought to have irreversible, catastrophic impacts on the earth’s climate system, ecosystems, and ultimately us, its inhabitants.
Although scientists agree we’re getting ever closer to the point of no return, thankfully countries and their governments around the world are seemingly combatting climate change by prioritising renewable energy sources (ie. solar, wind, and hydro energy) over traditional, non-sustainable sources (ie. coal, natural gas, and oil).
But are enough substantial, worthwhile changes – like the deployment of renewable energy – being made? And are these changes happening quickly enough?
We’ve explored the latest facts and figures on climate change and the global deployment of renewable energy as a response. We’ll be looking at both UK and global figures.
What is renewable energy?
Let’s begin by outlining the various types of renewable energy sources. A renewable energy source is something that can’t run out, or is endless. It’s an energy source that is sustainable to use. Whether it be earth, fire, wind, or water, the world holds all sorts of power deep within its natural resources. With the right technologies, we can use earth’s resources to power our homes and communities without the damage non-renewable resources can cause.
Let’s take a closer look at the most popular renewable energy sources currently being deployed around the world, including solar energy, wind energy, hydro energy, and biomass.
Solar technology is the conversion of sunlight into electrical energy through photovoltaic (PV) panels. This concentrated energy can then be used to generate electricity.
Thankfully, our world has an unending supply of sunlight. Solar energy is an abundant renewable energy source available to us. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) points out that the amount of solar radiation reaching Earth’s surface in just one hour is more than the energy currently consumed by all human activities in an entire year.
According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, solar power contributed to 6.2% of the UK’s electricity generation in 2021.
Wind power is the production of electricity using the kinetic energy created by air in motion. The production of wind power is generated from man-built wind turbines placed in locations with high winds, most notably off-shore wind farms which harness huge potential for power.
According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, wind power (onshore and offshore) contributed to 9% of the UK’s electricity generation in 2021.
Although there was an increase in new wind power capacity (up 4.4%), UK wind power generation fell by 38% between 2020 to 2021, mostly due to lower wind speeds.
Hydro energy (hydroelectric power) is electricity generated from flowing water, typically from rivers or man-made installations. Just like how wind power is generated from the kinetic energy of aerial turbines, hydro energy is generated from turbines placed within the flow of water. The UK currently deploys three types of hydroelectric schemes:
- Storage schemes. Using an impounded dam to feed a turbine and generator.
- Run-of-river schemes. Using the natural flow of water channelled from a river or lake.
- Pumped storage. Using two reservoirs to pump water from one to the other.
According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, hydro energy contributed to just 1% of the UK’s electricity generation in 2021. UK hydro energy generation fell a massive 45% between 2020 to 2021, mostly due to a decrease in average rainfall.
Biomass is a broad term and covers all organic material such as animals, plants, and trees. The production of biomass is considered a renewable energy source because biomass growth removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it in soil, plants, or trees.
According to ONS, biomass is the UK’s most used renewable energy source. Almost 40% of all renewable energy comes from biomass.
There are various other renewable energy sources in use globally, but we’ll focus on these four main types: solar, wind, hydro, and biomass.
Why is renewable energy so important?
The natural wonders of the planet have equipped us with the right ways of producing clean, green energy. Thankfully we are currently using these natural energy resources too, just perhaps not nearly enough – or to our full advantage.
Now that renewable energy is readily available, the key question needing to be answered is, are the current rates of renewable energy deployment enough to truly prevent further global destruction from climate change? Well, only time will tell.
Yet time really isn’t on our side. The signs and symptoms of climate change are still worsening, despite the gradual growth of renewable energy use. In fact, according to GOV.UK, global greenhouse emissions have increased 1.3% per year on average since 2010.
Global temperatures also continue to rise. According to the UK Met Office, the earth’s temperature has reached an average exceeding 1.0ºC above pre-industrial levels for the past 20 years. 2021’s mean global temperature was also 1.08ºC above the 1850-1900 average.
With the planet warming, the ice sheets are melting. This is causing global sea-levels to rise to dangerous levels too. In fact, according to the UK Met Office, global sea level rise now amounts to 3.3 ± 0.3 mm per year. 2019 also saw the highest ocean temperature since records began, and the rate of sea warming over the last 10 years was higher than the long-term average.
Perhaps the most alarming and devastating impact of climate change is the increase in extreme weather events. The increase of annual storms, droughts, and cold waves ultimately cause high-impact natural disasters such as floods, wildfires, and landslides.
The race towards renewables has begun
As you can see from startling climate change figures, substantial action like the deployment of renewable energy resources needs to be taken. And it needs to be taken fast.
Fortunately, renewable energy is the world’s fastest-growing energy source. In fact, according to the GOV.UK, global renewable energy use increased by 3% in 2020. The Guardian even reported in December 2021 that with current growth trends, the capacity of renewable energy generation will exceed that of fossil fuels and nuclear energy combined by 2026. Whether the capacity of invested renewable energy technologies is fully utilised is down to our governments.
So, why have we seen a rise in global renewable energy use? Well, thankfully it’s new climate policies that have boosted the growth. Governments around the world have come together to set new worldwide ambitions of cutting the use of destructive fossil fuels and maximising the deployment of renewable energy sources, all with hopes of faltering the planet’s climate change crisis.
Climate change actions and agreements
GOV.UK reports that every country in the world has at least one law or policy which aims to combat climate change. The most prolific, developed countries (including the UK) have around 20 each. There’s also a total of around 1,800 climate change-related laws currently in place around the world.
This certainly sounds promising, so let’s look at the most prominent global climate change agreements that have come to fruition in the last decade or two.
The Paris Agreement
The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international climate change treaty signed and agreed by 196 parties in Paris, December 2015. The goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit global warming to below 2ºC (preferably 1.5ºC) compared to pre-industrial levels.
To ensure this goal is achieved, countries around the world have agreed to undertake ambitious, transformative social and economic efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its long-lasting effects.
The Kyoto Protocol
The Kyoto Protocol is a commitment made by industrialised countries and economies to limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with mutually agreed targets. The responsibilities of each involved country are differentiated depending on their respective capabilities. Essentially, the more responsible you are for the high levels of greenhouse emissions, the heavier the burden falls on you.
UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is a worldwide pledge from UN members to prevent, halt, and reverse the ongoing degradation of ecosystems across the earth’s oceans and various continents. The overall aim is to finally combat climate change and prevent mass extinction.
The initiatives of safeguarding the earth’s rich ecosystems are to be achieved by conserving and restoring valuable biodiversity and backpedalling the harmful commercial pressures that threaten them.
In the last few years, there has been significant global movement in the race to achieve net-zero emissions. Sweden was the first country to pass a net-zero law back in 2017. Since then, many other countries have joined: France, Denmark, New Zealand, Hungary, and the UK – all of whom have pledged to achieve net-zero by 2050. China has also pledged to be net-zero by a decade later in 2060, and India two decades later in 2070.
Are these global commitments enough?
As a major source of global emissions, the energy industry holds the most amount of power for combatting the world’s climate change crisis. Committed countries actually staying on the path towards net-zero emissions to achieve the Paris Agreement relies on the mass deployment of renewable energy.
Although renewable energy deployment is growing and global actions and commitments are being agreed upon, the International Energy Agency (IEA) believes we still fall short of what is needed. They warn that the world needs a real surge in green, sustainable energy infrastructure and innovation if the energy industry wants to truly clean up its act.
Who are the race front-runners?
So, with the race for renewables underway, how are different countries responding to the ongoing climate crisis? Who are the frontrunners paving the way for a greener, brighter future? And who has fallen behind – or worse, barely left the finish line?
To find out who the top-performing countries for combating climate change were in 2021, we will examine rankings put together by the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI). They have ranked 60 countries in total (together being responsible for 92% of all global emissions).
Although their overall scoring is based on various categories (including climate policy, GHG emissions, and overall energy use), we’ll just focus on the deployment of renewable energy.
Amongst the top five best-performing countries for renewable energy were:
Norway leads the way with sustainable electricity generation, with 98% of the country’s power coming from renewable sources. But despite some high-ranking countries demonstrating their renewable energy prowess, even they cannot afford to sit back and relax. The CCPI points out that even if all 60 countries performed as well as the front-runners, it would still not be a substantial enough change to keep the earth’s temperature below a 2ºC rise.
Is the world winning?
Although some countries are striving to win the race of renewable energy, more so than others, the only real winners of the race can and should be the entirety of humankind – not individual countries.
So, is humankind winning the race towards renewables? What does the future hold for the renewable energy industry? And are these plans enough to truly combat climate change?
What are the UK’s Plans?
The UK’s most substantial initiative to reach its net zero goal in 2050 is ‘Build Back Greener’ – a scheme consisting of a 10-point plan for a green revolution. According to GOV.UK, the 10-point plan mobilises £12 billion of the government’s investment to pioneer new green industries and introduce regulations to assure the future demand of green products
EV roll out
Perhaps the most prolific plan of Build Back Greener is the decision to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. According to GOV.UK, the move towards electric and hybrid vehicles aims to improve air quality in urban areas and put us at the forefront of the net-zero revolution. The UK government will also provide grants for homeowners, businesses, and local authorities to install charge points. They have already supported the installation of 140,000 residential charge points.
Alongside the banning of new diesel and petrol car sales, the Build Back Greener initiative will also see significant investment into the skills of the country’s workforce for high-paid green jobs, as well as investment into nationwide green projects. In fact, at the Global Investment Summit in October 2019, Boris Johnson announced that Build Back Greener has currently officiated 18 deals worth £9.7 billion, which will create approximately 30,000 jobs.
Renewable electricity power
Another key plan of Build Back Greener is to deliver a nationwide decarbonised power system to the UK’s homes and communities. According to the key commitments pointed out by GOV.UK, all of the UK’s electricity will come from low-carbon sources by 2035. The deployment of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power is also set to hugely increase in the coming decade.
Wind power is the biggest, most promising renewable energy source in the UK’s green future. Key commitments include the investment of £380 million into the offshore wind sector, with hopes of delivering 40GW of offshore wind power by 2030.
What about the rest of the world?
The UK cannot combat climate change by itself. Reaching safe greenhouse emission levels and ultimately halting the damaging effects of climate change will require a shared global effort. Let’s look at the biggest efforts from the rest of the world, in particular the planet’s most responsible contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
United States of America
As the world’s second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States also needs to take action fast. So, what are they doing about it? Well, according to the framework proposed by the White House, the United States has a new target: a 50-52% reduction in greenhouse gas pollution from 2005 levels by 2050. Although President Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement back in November 2020, President Biden rejoined on Day 1 of his presidency, also promising to achieve a net-zero economy no later than by 2050.
As the world’s third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, it’s vital that India speeds up the pace in the race for renewable energy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set the country a target of net-zero emissions by 2070. This is a significantly later deadline when compared to other countries around the world. Indian governments take the stance that fully industrialised and developed nations should take greater responsibility because they have contributed more towards damaging climate change effects over time.
Center for Climate and Energy Solutions
Climate Change Performance Index
International Energy Agency
United Nation Decade on Ecosystem Restoration
United Nation Environment Programme
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change