Renewable energy targets mandates and subsidies now in place in 164 countries powered the growth of solar, wind and other green technologies to record-breaking energy generation capacity in 2014. So to advocates that means CO2 emissions and growth do not have to go hand-in-hand. To critics, the fact that these alternative energy schemes only work when there are mandates and subsidies means fossil fuels should be cleaner, not eliminated.
According to REN21's latest Renewables Global Status Report, policymakers continued to focus on adapting existing policies to keep pace with rapidly changing costs and circumstances.
With 135 gigawatts added, total installed renewable energy power capacity worldwide, including large hydroelectric plants, stood at 1712 gigawatts, up 8.5% from the year before and double the 800 gigawatts of capacity reported in the first REN21 report in 2005.
In 2014, renewables made up an estimated 59% of net additions to global power capacity and represented far higher shares of capacity added in several countries around the world. By year's end, renewables comprised an estimated 27.7% of the world's power generating capacity. This was enough to supply an estimated 22.8% of global electricity demand.
The quantity of electricity available from renewables worldwide is now greater than that produced by all coal-burning plants in the USA (in 2013 coal supplied ~38% of US electricity, down from ~50% in the early 2000s).
Solar photovoltaic capacity has grown at the most phenomenal rate (up 68-fold, from 2.6 GW in 2004 to 177 GW in 2014), with strong growth also in wind power capacity (up almost 8-fold, from 48 GW in 2004 to 370 GW in 2014).
Heating accounted for about half of world energy consumption in 2014. Renewable energy supplied more than 25% of final energy use in the heating sector, of which over two-thirds was traditional biomass. Modern renewable energy supplied the remaining third, or about 8% of the world's total final energy use for heat production.
All of which helped the world achieve a sustainable development milestone: In 2014, for the first time in four decades, the world economy grew without a parallel rise in carbon dioxide emissions. Despite the world's annual 1.5% increase in energy consumption in recent years and 3% Gross Domestic Product growth last year, CO2 emissions were unchanged from 2013 levels: 32.3 billion metric tons.
According to the report, the landmark "decoupling" of economic and CO2 growth is due in large measure to China's increased use of renewable resources, and efforts by countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to promote sustainable energy sources.
This is "particularly encouraging," the report says, given the UN's major conference in December in Paris, where countries will announce and / or confirm actions to mitigate climate change, setting the stage for future investment in renewables and energy efficiency. "Renewable energy and improved energy efficiency are key to limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius and avoiding dangerous climate change", says REN21 Chair Arthouros Zervos, who released the new report at the Vienna Energy Forum.
Employment in the sector is growing fast as well. In 2014, an estimated 7.7 million people worldwide worked directly or indirectly in the renewable energy sector
The sector's growth could even greater if not for government policies, including more than $550 billion in annual subsidies for fossil fuel and nuclear energy, which perpetuate artificially low energy prices from those sources, encouraging waste and impeding competition from renewables.
Says Christine Lins, Executive Secretary, REN21: "Creating a level playing field would strengthen the development and use of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. Removing fossil-fuel and hidden nuclear subsidies globally would make it evident that renewables are the cheapest energy option."
More than one billion people, or 15% of humanity, still lack access to electricity. With installed capacity of roughly 147 GW, all of Africa has less power generation capacity than Germany. Distributed renewable energy technologies are improving the situation, providing essential and productive energy services in remote and rural areas. For example, off-grid solar PV (which attracted roughly US $64 billion in 2014) has a significant and growing market presence.
However, the growth rate is below that necessary to achieve the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) goals of doubling renewable energy and energy efficiency and providing universal access for all by 2030.