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Record growth of renewable energy in 2023 isn’t fast enough, says IEA

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China played a big part in the growth of solar and wind power in 2023

yuanyuan xie / Alamy Stock Photo

2023 saw a record expansion of renewable energy, with almost 50 per cent more solar, wind and other clean energy sources built than in 2022, according to a report from the International Energy Agency (IEA). But this unprecedented pace lags behind what is needed to reach net-zero emissions by the middle of the century and limit dangerous climate warming.

“When I look at the numbers, it is definitely a ‘wow’ effect,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, said at a press conference today. “The renewable expansion in 2023 was over 500 gigawatts.”

Under existing policies, the agency projects that renewables will overtake coal to provide the largest share of the world’s electricity for the first time in 2025. By the end of the decade, the IEA anticipates that renewable energy capacity will increase by 2.5 times. “It’s very good news,” said Birol.

That is a substantial increase over projections made ahead of the COP28 climate summit held in Dubai in December 2023. For instance, a report from UK energy think tank Ember published in November last year found the world was on track to double capacity by the end of the decade.

However, Dave Jones at Ember says this difference mostly isn’t down to a change in policy or new project announcements over the past few months, but updated data on China’s extraordinary roll-out of solar and wind power. The IEA report finds that China saw more solar energy come online in 2023 than the entire world saw in 2022.

“China is the single most important driver of this spectacular growth seen in 2023,” said Birol. He also pointed to record renewable capacity additions in the US, Europe, Brazil and India as key drivers of the jump.

Nonetheless, the IEA’s projections still leave the world lagging behind its target to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030, one of the key outcomes agreed at COP28.

“It is not yet there, but it is not miles away from that target,” said Birol, adding that the agency plans to carefully monitor what happens in the “real world” with COP28 targets on clean energy and methane.

Closing that renewable energy gap will require different interventions in different parts of the world, the report finds. In high-income countries, this would involve improvements to the electricity grid and faster awarding of permits for the deep backlog of energy projects. Low-income countries need better access to finance for clean energy projects.

“We are talking about transitioning away from fossil fuels, but we have so many economies in Africa that are still indebted,” says Amos Wemanya at Power Shift Africa, an energy think tank in Kenya, adding that the continent has seen a fraction of the clean energy investment that has flowed to rich countries.

If the twin COP28 targets to triple renewables and double energy efficiency improvements are met by the end of the decade, Jones says it could cut global carbon dioxide emissions by more than a third and begin to displace fossil fuels. “2024 will be the year that renewables changed from a nuisance for the fossil fuel industry to an existential threat,” he says.

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