Renewable energy is on the rise—with record additions this year—but so is carbon.

Global additions of renewable energy capacity are expected to reach 290GW in 2021, up 3% from the all-time high set last year, according to IEA data. This compares with current fossil fuel and nuclear power capacity of 4,800GW.

Last year, annual renewable capacity additions increased 45% to almost 280GW-the highest year-on year increase since 1999. Solar PV alone is expected to account for more than half of all renewable power expansion in 2021, followed by wind and hydropower.

The consecutive annual record will come despite rising raw materials costs, which are driving up the cost of producing and transporting solar panels and wind turbines, threatening to put pressure on investment in the short-term. Stronger commodity prices through the end of 2022 would return the cost of wind projects to the level last seen in 2015, while the last three years of cost reductions for solar PV would be undone.

EMISSIONS

Despite the accelerating uptake of renewables, energy related CO2 emissions are on track for their second largest ever rise in 2021, reversing most of last year’s decline—according to the IEA. These emissions are projected to grow by 4.8% as demand for coal, oil and gas increases as the economy rebounds. This follows a 5.8% decline, or almost 2Gt, in 2020, which marked the largest ever decrease. Despite the reduction, global energy-related CO2 emissions remained at 31.5Gt, which contributed to CO2 reaching its highest ever average annual concentration in the atmosphere—around 50% higher than when the industrial revolution began.

This year’s expected rise in coal use dwarfs that of renewables by almost 60%, even as electricity generation from renewables is set to leap by more than 8%, the IEA said. More than 80% of the projected growth in coal use is set to come from Asia, led by China. Coal use in the US and the EU, however, will remain well below pre-crisis levels. Oil use is also recovering but will stay below 2019 levels, largely because the aviation sector is expected to remain depressed this year. Global gas demand is expected to grow 3.2% in 2021, more than recouping last year’s decline.

While the global commitment to fighting climate change had “never been higher”, IEA Director Fatih Birol stressed the need to back up pledges to cut emissions with credible policy actions. “I will be blunt. Commitments alone are not enough. We need real change in the real world. Right now, the data does not match the rhetoric, and the gap is getting wider and wider” he said.

Reaching net zero emissions by 2050 would depend in large part on the use of technologies that were not yet ready to be used at scale, such as carbon capture and storage and the use of clean hydrogen as fuel, he added. “Make no mistake, this is a Herculean task.”

Key Renewables Pledges

China

China’s net-zero by 2060 target includes a goal of 25% of its total energy mix from non-fossil generation by 2030. China plans to more than double its current installed capacity of wind and solar power to 1,200GW by 2030. The IEA forecasts China will reach this target four years ahead of schedule in 2026.

China wants 80% of its total energy mix to come from non-fossil fuel sources by 2060, according to a high-level policy framework for achieving carbon neutrality, published by the State Council, the country's highest executive body, on Oct. 24. About 57% of China’s total energy consumption came from coal burning in 2020, down from 70% in 2009.

United States

The US has committed to reduce net GHG emissions by 50-52% by 2030 compared to 2005. The country plans to decarbonise the power sector by 2035 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

In 2020, renewable energy provided 19.8% (792TWh) of the country’s electricity, including 8.4% wind (338TWh), 7.3% hydropower (291TWh) and 2.3% solar (91TWh). Natural gas and coal accounted for 60.6% (2,427TWh), while nuclear provided 19.7% (790TWh), according to EIA data. The US Department of Energy (DoE) said in February that it expects renewables would reach a 42% share by 2050 based on current trends and policies.

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"The consecutive annual record will come despite rising costs for raw materials used, aided by strong policy support."

"China plans to more than double its current installed capacity of wind and solar power to 1,200GW by 2030."

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