Factcheck: How much energy does the world get from renewables?

  • 06 Oct 2015, 14:05
  • Simon Evans
Solar panels against the deep blue sky

Solar panels | Shutterstock

The world cannot avoid dangerous climate change without moving to "near zero emissions" before the end of the century, according to the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Zero-carbon sources of energy will be key to this transition and in the power sector they are already being added more quickly than fossil fuels.

So just how much energy does the world get from renewables? Carbon Brief has two charts to show where we are today, and how far we've come over the past half century.

Fossil free

Last week,  Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England,  warned that fossil fuel assets could become unburnable, stranded assets that no longer have value -- with broad implications for financial stability. His comments continue to  divide opinion.

Yet if the world is to successfully avoid dangerous warming, fossil fuels must ultimately be either replaced by  zero-carbon alternatives or used with  carbon capture and storage.

Not  everyone believes this to be a plausible future. In an article in  the Telegraph on 1 October, Jeremy Warner wrote:

"Thirty years of extraordinarily costly research and development has resulted in a renewables industry that today accounts for a stunning - wait for it - 1 per cent of global energy supply."

In the  Sunday Times on 4 October, Rod Liddle wrote:

"Carney, with wind turbine nailed to his forehead, has decided he doesn't like hydrocarbons. Coal, gas and oil. He thinks we should probably leave one third of the world's reserves of hydrocarbons right there where they are, in the ground. Leave it where it is and invest in what are euphemistically called renewables, which contribute 1% of the world's energy needs. Right-ho, Mark - that's the entire basis of the western economic system well and truly buggered, then."

Renewable share

The two columnists are scathing of renewables, giving identical figures for the renewable share of world energy. Are they right? In short, no.

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IEA scales back UK renewables forecast, citing policy uncertainty

  • 02 Oct 2015, 06:00
  • Simon Evans
Wind turbines at Little Cheyne Court

Wind turbines | Oast House Archives

The future for UK renewables is less optimistic than it looked a year ago, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The amount of renewable capacity added in the UK will fall by half between 2015 and 2016, says the IEA's Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report 2015, in part because of uncertainty over government policy following the election in May.

Globally, the IEA expects renewables to be the single largest source of new electricity generating capacity, accounting for nearly two-thirds of all additions to 2020. However, the UK policy environment is not alone in leaving question marks over support for renewables, the IEA warns.

Carbon Brief has a short summary of the report.

UK uncertainty

Since the UK's general election in May, a series of renewable energy policies have been  rolled back or put  under review. "Policy uncertainties have emerged," the IEA says, citing changes to support for onshore wind, solar and other renewables.

Compared to its 2014 outlook, the IEA says its UK forecast for renewables is "less optimistic...with a dip in 2016 due to slower expansion of onshore wind and solar". This dip will see growth rates fall by more than half, from around 4 gigawatts (GW) added in 2015 to below 2GW in 2016.

Though it expects growth rates to recover, the IEA does not expect annual additions to return to pre-election levels (chart, below).

Renewal -capacity

Past and projected renewable generating capacity additions in the UK between 2013 and 2020. Source: IEA Medium Term Renewable Energy Market Report 2015.


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Indonesian pledge suggests no increase in emissions to 2030

  • 25 Sep 2015, 13:30
  • Simon Evans
Air pollution, some from forest fires, over Southeast Asia in October 1997

Indonesia, 1997 | Wikipedia

Indonesia would not increase its emissions over the next 15 years if it receives international support, according to Carbon Brief analysis of its climate pledge to the UN.

Its  intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) pledges a 29-41% reduction in emissions by 2030, compared to business as usual. The upper end of this range, conditional on "support from international cooperation", would see emissions in 2030 remain at recently reported levels.

Indonesia's pledge is significant. It is ranked in the top 10 and possibly even the top five emitting nations. However, there is wide uncertainty over its emissions, which are dominated by variable deforestation and fires. Carbon Brief has run the numbers on the pledge to gauge what it means.

No finance request

Indonesia's INDC says it aims to decarbonise its economy "in a phased approach". This pathway will be incorporated in its national development plan for 2019-2024, it says. The INDC extends an existing pledge to cut emissions by 26% against business-as-usual (BAU) emissions in 2020.

The INDC says the 2030 emissions targets will be met through:

"Improved land use and spatial planning, energy conservation and the promotion of clean and renewable energy sources, and improved waste management".

It adds that inefficient energy use has been encouraged by fossil fuel subsidies, which President Widodo has  started to reduce. However, the INDC lacks specifics on the policy priorities it sets out.

Unlike a  draft, the final INDC also omits a request for $6bn of  international climate finance to fund its 41% conditional pledge. This figure had been reported by the  Guardian.

Andhyta Utami, researcher with World Resources Institute (WRI) Indonesia, tells Carbon Brief it is not clear why the finance request had been omitted. However, the figure had caused confusion, Utami says, because it clearly excluded much higher investment needs towards a pledge to source 23% of Indonesia's energy from renewables by 2025.

A separate  government document costs the renewables target at $108bn, she adds. Utami says:

"Indonesia could be more transparent on how much international assistance it will need to reach its conditional target...It should publish its financing needs before Paris." 

Utami also expressed concern over the make-up of the 23% goal, which represents a significant and  ambitious leap compared to renewables' current 4% share of the country's energy mix. Bioenergy, including biofuels and biomass from crops such as palm oil, are slated to make up 10% of Indonesia's energy mix in 2025, potentially putting pressure on already-threatened forest lands.

The  WRI argues that solar, hydro and ocean energy should make up the majority of the renewables target instead. This would ease the pressure on land, which the government also expects to make Indonesia self-sufficient in food.

Alongside growing renewables, Indonesia has  major plans to expand its coal-fired electricity generation, with coal use in the country already having doubled in a decade. This expansion is rapidly increasing emissions and will squeeze the country's ability to stick to its climate pledge.

Coal expansion could "undermine" Indonesia's efforts on renewables, WRI says. Coal is not mentioned in Indonesia's INDC. 

Uncertain emissions

As well as being hazy on policy and financing needs, it is also difficult to gauge the ambition of Indonesia's INDC emissions targets. This is despite the document including a projected figure for BAU emissions in 2030 of 2.9bn tonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e).

The pledge to reduce emissions by at least 29% compared to this trajectory means an effective cap in 2030 of 2GtCO2e. With the more ambitious 41% reduction compared to BAU, the cap would be 1.7GtCO2e. The  UK's emissions are 0.5GtCO2e and China's around 12.5GtCO2e.

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Update: What do the Labour leadership candidates think on climate and energy?

  • 14 Sep 2015, 14:05
  • Sophie Yeo & Simon Evans
Labour party logo

Labour logo | Shutterstock

Update - 14 September 2015

On Saturday, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party, winning 59.5% of the vote.

Today, he appointed Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan, as shadow secretary of state for energy and climate change.  She has previously served as shadow charities minister, and has been tipped to be a possible future leader of the Labour party. 

In the past, Nandy has campaigned against profiteering by the Big Six energy companies and said that shale gas is "not the magic bullet the Coalition claims".

Corbyn has also appointed Kerry McCarthy as shadow secretary of state for environment. McCarthy is MP for Bristol East.

She has written a Fabian essay on climate change campaigning, in which she says: "Securing a global climate deal in Paris in December 2015 will be one of the most pressing and immediate challenges facing the next government." She has also regularly brought up the subject of climate change in Parliament.

Carbon Brief's Labour leadership election grid summarises the views of Jeremy Corbyn, and the other candidates, on climate and energy issues.

Corbyn's views, taken mainly from his detailed "Protecting our Planet" election manifesto, are likely to inform opposition policies over the coming years.


The UK's Labour party will soon choose a new leader, following the resignation of Ed Miliband after May's election.

As former climate and energy secretary, Miliband had long been engaged on issues of emissions reductions, energy efficiency and the UN climate negotiations.

The leadership contest is between four candidates: Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall - none of whom have held a climate-related position in government to date.

Carbon Brief has created a grid, distilling the candidates' thoughts on key climate policy issues.

Frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn has released a detailed  manifesto of his climate and energy policies. Andy Burnham has also released a formal  manifesto, which briefly touches on the environment.

We have also collected climate- and energy-related statements from the candidates' speeches, blogs, newspaper articles, interviews and essays.

Labour -leadership -grid

The Labour Leadership Grid. Visit our Google doc for the full, interactive version.

What do they think?

Each candidate has acknowledged that climate change is a key threat that must be tackled.

That is not to say they always agree on how the problem should be approached.

Perhaps the most widely reported climate angle of the leadership campaign has been left-winger Jeremy Corbyn's suggestion that he could reopen coal mines in South Wales. Both Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper have explicitly rejected this, preferring instead to focus on creating jobs in the technology sector - in Cooper's case, this could include clean coal technology.

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The rise, fall and future of the cleantech industry

  • 10 Sep 2015, 14:00
  • Sophie Yeo

In the climate change toolbox, "clean technology" is the component that spans high excitement (think Elon Musk's Tesla cars) and the deeply mundane (think frequency converters, waste heat recovery boilers, and more).

While there is no single accepted definition, the phrase spans technologies that cut emissions, improve the environment, and reduce the consumption of natural resources.

The development of clean technology is touted as one of the most effective ways to tackle climate change and other environmental issues.

And it is already a multibillion-dollar business. According to figures from consultancy firm Frost & Sullivan presented at the Global Cleantech Summit in Helsinki this week, the market for clean technology was worth $601bn in 2014. By 2020, the firm predicts this will expand to $1.3tn.

With the world likely to sign an emissions-cutting deal in Paris in December this year, and large economies such as India and China eager for ways to clean up their air pollution, rivers and land, it is easy to paint the future of the clean technology in a rosy light.

Speaking in Helsinki on Tuesday, Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said:

"Clean technology is succeeding today not only in Europe but all over the world. China is one of the largest producers of renewable energy today. India has just announced a 100,000MW solar programme. Saudi Arabia is on the forefront. Kenya, the country in which we operate, because of its green energy policy put in place eight years ago, is today producing the vast majority of its electricity with renewables...The story repeats itself, in the United States, in South America."


However, the story is not an entirely happy one. In 2012 and 2013, investments in clean technology slumped.

Figures released in January 2014 by  Bloomberg New Energy Finance showed that, after a record $318bn in global investment in clean energy in 2011, this dropped to $286bn in 2012 and again to $254bn in 2013.

This, too, was a story that repeated itself across the globe. In 2013, China saw its investments in clean energy slip by 3.8% from 2012 levels, down to $61bn. In the US, investments dropped by 8.4% to $48bn.

Europe saw one of the biggest declines, with investment falling by 41% down to $58bn in 2013. Bloomberg attributed this to big economies, such as Germany, Italy and France, restricting subsidy payments for new projects and failing to dispel uncertainty over future support.

Wind, solar and biomass all saw investments drop during this period - although for other clean technologies, including smart grids, storage, electric vehicles and efficiency, investments continued to rise slightly.

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New nuclear power in UK would be the world's most costly, says report

  • 03 Sep 2015, 17:45
  • Simon Evans

New nuclear power in the UK would be more expensive than in any other country, according to a report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA).

The study on Projected Costs of Electricity Generation tries to compare different technologies and countries on a level playing field. It uses uniform assumptions along with specific data gathered in a survey of 181 plants in 22 countries, including 11 planned new nuclear plants.

The results, showing the high cost of UK nuclear, arrive as the government prepares to finalise a £24.5bn deal to build Hinkley C, the country's first new nuclear plant for a generation. The scheme -- seen as a key part of the UK's climate efforts -- was today hit by fresh delays.

Carbon Brief compares the projected costs of new nuclear in the UK, and elsewhere.

Level playing field

It's not easy to compare the cheapest way to build a power plant. Some electricity markets are effectively government-run, others deregulated, such as the UK's.

The cost of labour, as well as access to finance, supply chains and expertise, all differ widely. Moreover, studies often take different approaches, including or excluding the costs of carbon, health impacts or grid management.

The IEA and NEA's regular projected costs of generation report attempts to cut through this mess, using a standardised approach to compare technologies on a level playing field. It does this using the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE), a measure of how much it would cost to get a megawatt hour (MWh) of power from a new plant in a particular year, in this case 2020.

There are obvious reasons to do this. What's the most cost-effective way to replace ageing energy infrastructure? Which is the cheapest low-carbon technology? However, the report urges caution:

"It is worth emphasising that an explicit comparison of LCOEs for different technologies and even among countries can be misleading, as each technology and each country faces a different set of risk profiles."

So the LCOE isn't perfect, and a lengthy chapter explains why it will become increasingly imperfect in a low-carbon future. Still, it's natural to compare and that's kind of the point of the report.

The report's section on nuclear power compares the UK to nine other countries, with the UK coming out more expensive than any of the others.

Using a 10% discount rate -- a rough proxy for borrowing costs -- the report finds new nuclear in the UK would cost £87/MWh. That's a fifth more expensive than in France, a third more than the US and more than twice the projected costs in China or Korea (chart below).

Levelised Cost Of New Nuclear

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Study: China's carbon emissions substantially overestimated

  • 19 Aug 2015, 18:00
  • Simon Evans

Coal plant | Shutterstock

China, the world's largest emitter, has had its contribution to global warming radically downsized.

A new paper finds China's emissions in 2013 were as much as 14% lower than previously thought, because of faulty assumptions on coal quality and energy use. It says China released 10.6 billion tonnes less carbon dioxide (CO2) during 2000 to 2013, equivalent to three years of EU emissions.

Despite the huge numbers involved, however, today's findings could have greater significance for scientists than for policymakers. Carbon Brief has the details.

Data adjustments

CO2 emissions are rarely measured directly at source, as there are so many cars, factories and power plants contributing. Instead, scientists estimate emissions from the amount of fuel that is burnt and the amount of carbon contained in each tonne of coal, oil or gas.

The problem is that energy use data is hard to collect and is sometimes revised, while the carbon content of a tonne of fuel can vary widely. Today's research addresses these problems for China, where statistics are notoriously unreliable, and where fuel quality is relatively untested.

It finds that China used 17% more coal, 2% more oil and 3% more gas in 2013 than reported by China's national government. During the period from 2000 to 2012, energy use was 10% higher.

The researchers' figures are more accurate, they say, citing among other reasons the risk that official statistics may have been subjected to "'adjustment' for political or other purposes".

China uses almost a quarter of the world's energy and burns more than half of the world's coal, so this update is significant in its own right. More important for the climate, however, is emissions.

Here, the researchers also make large adjustments. Using samples from thousands of mines, they conclude that Chinese coal is of much lower quality and has lower carbon content than in other countries. One reasons is that it is 27% ash on average, compared to 14% in the US.

What is the net effect of China burning more tonnes of more coal, oil and gas but each tonne containing less carbon? The paper concludes:

"Results suggest that Chinese CO2 emissions have been substantially overestimated in recent years."

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Islamic climate declaration calls for fossil fuel phase out

  • 18 Aug 2015, 16:50
  • Sophie Yeo
Mosque in Istanbul against blue sky

Mosque in Istanbul | Zaprittsky

Islamic scholars from around the world have endorsed a declaration calling on nations to phase out greenhouse gas emissions and switch to 100% renewable energy.

The  Islamic Declaration on Climate Change will be seen as the religion's major contribution ahead of the UN climate talks in Paris this December.

Released during a two-day symposium on Islam and climate change in Istanbul, the declaration lays out why Muslims should be concerned about the planet, and sets out a series of demands to world leaders and the business community.

It is the second major intervention to have emerged from the faith community this year, after Pope Francis released his  encyclical on climate change and the environment in June.

Writing the declaration

The process of drafting the declaration began around six months ago. A team of five Islamic scholars were involved in crafting the initial document.

These were Ibrahim Ozdemir (professor of philosophy and founding president of Gazikent University), Azizan Baharuddin (a professor at the University of Malaya), Othman Llewellyn (environmental planner at the Saudi Wildlife Authority), Fazlun Khalid (founder of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science) and Fachruddin Mangunjaya (vice chairman of Center for Islamic Studies at the Universitas Nasional in Jakarta).

Abdelmajid Tribak, head of environmental programmes at ISESCO (the Islamic version of UNESCO), helped to convene environment ministers from around the Muslim world.

Other Muslim scholars were then invited to give their input to the draft, which went through around eight or nine incarnations before it was presented to 60 participants at this week's symposium, where it was fine-tuned and finalised during a late-night session in Istanbul, says Khalid.

The message

The declaration calls on four separate groups with a series of demands for tackling climate change.

First, it calls on the policy makers responsible for crafting the UN's climate change agreement this December to come to "an equitable and binding conclusion". Specifically, the deal should set clear targets and establish ways to monitor them, says the declaration.

It calls on well-off nations and oil-producing states to phase out their emissions no later than the middle of the century, turn away from "unethical profit from the environment" and invest in a green economy.

It calls on people and leaders from all nations to commit to 100% renewable energy and a zero emissions strategy as soon as possible, and to recognise that unlimited economic growth is not a viable option. It adds that adaptation should also be prioritised, particularly for the most vulnerable groups.

And finally it calls on the business sector, which it says should take a more active role to reduce their carbon footprint, also commit to 100% renewables and zero emissions, shift investments into renewable energy, adopt more sustainable business models and assist in the divestment from fossil fuels.

It finally issues a call to "all Muslims wherever they may be" - including the media, education, mosques and UN delegations.

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Explainer: The rise and possible fall of Australia's Carmichael coal mine

  • 14 Aug 2015, 17:30
  • Sophie Yeo
A large yellow conveyor belt carrying coal and emptying onto a huge pile.

Coal pile, Australia | Shutterstock

What links yakka skinks, Standard Chartered bank and the president of Kiribati?

They are all some of the recent obstacles to the Carmichael coal mine - a proposed project in the Galilee Basin of Queensland, Australia, that could become one of the world's biggest sources of carbon dioxide emissions.

The A$16.5 billion coal mine was approved by the Australian government in 2014, and is being developed by Indian company Adani Mining. It is expected to start operating in 2017 and run for 90 years, producing 60 million tonnes of coal a year when operating at full capacity.


This would make it Australia's largest coal mine, as well as one of the largest in the world. Its production would be equivalent to around 5% of global coal exports. Burning this amount of coal would  produce 128.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (MtCO2) a year - roughly equivalent to the emissions of Belgium.

The mine is an environmental double whammy. Not only would it increase CO2 emissions, but activists are concerned that it will threaten the Great Barrier Reef.

The coal produced at the Carmichael mine would be exported to India. In 2013, Australia was the second largest coal exporter in the world, after Indonesia. It is slated to  regain the top spot by 2017.

Top -five -coal -exporters -2012

Source:  US Energy Information Administration. Chart by Carbon Brief

Though Australia is the world's second largest coal exporter, it ranks only fifth in terms of total production.

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Mapped: The world's top countries for nuclear power

  • 11 Aug 2015, 16:00
  • Simon Evans
Japanese nuclear power plant

Japanese nuclear | IAEA Imagebank

Today, Japan restarted a reactor for the first time since it shuttered its nuclear sector in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

The Sendai number one reactor could be the first of 25 plants to restart operations, though all are facing legal challenges. If Japan succeeds in resuscitating its nuclear industry, it would once again be a leading producer of atomic energy. If it fails, its  climate pledge to the UN will be at risk.

Carbon Brief has mapped the world's top countries for nuclear power, showing Japan's dramatic fall and the rise of its Asian neighbours.

Nuclear share

The amount of electricity generated in nuclear power stations grew steadily through the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, reaching a peak of around 2,800 terawatt hours (TWh) in 2006 (below left). For comparison, that would have nearly powered the entire EU last year.

With most of the world's 391 nuclear reactors built in the 1970s and 1980s, however, older plants have started to close down and the expansion of the sector has stalled. Nuclear's share of global electricity generation has fallen back from a 1996 peak of 18% to just 11% last year (below right).

The average age of the world's nuclear fleet is 28.8 years, according to the latest  World Nuclear Industry Status Report. A third of the reactors in the US are more than 40 years old.

Nuclear TWh - GenerationElectricity generation from nuclear power for selected countries and the rest of the world (left). Nuclear's share of total power generation (right). Source:  BP statistical review of world energy. Charts by Carbon Brief.

Apart from  ageing reactors, there are three other reasons for the decline of nuclear generation after 2005. First, Lithuania's nuclear phase out after 2009. Second,  Germany's decision to start phasing out atomic power in stages (green area, above).

The third and most dramatic reason is the  Fukushima disaster and Japan's shuttering of its entire nuclear fleet (pink area). This has only be partly offset by growth in China (light blue area).

The earthquake and tsunami that damaged the Fukushima plant reinforced Germany's resolve on its nuclear phase out. Other countries reacted in different ways, choosing to improve safety systems but retain their nuclear sectors. Today's restart at Sendai comes after investing in the world's toughest safety measures, according to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

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