Renewable power plants averted a substantial 2.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emission in 2019, finds UN report

The analysis shows that in 2019, the amount of new renewable power capacity added was the highest ever, at 184 gigawatts and this new capacity was delivered with almost the same investment as 2018


                            Renewable power plants averted a substantial 2.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emission in 2019, finds UN report
(Getty Images)

Renewable power plants prevented the emission of an estimated 2.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide in 2019. This is a substantial saving given global power sector emissions of approximately 13.5 gigatonnes in 2019, according to a new UN report.

“Renewable technologies (excluding large hydro) raised their share of global generation to 13.4% in 2019, from 12.4% in 2018 and just 5.9% in 2009. That share is increasing slowly because of the large, established fossil fuel fleet. However, that amount of renewable electricity production last year was enough to prevent the emission of an estimated 2.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide,” says the study. 

A gigatonne is 1,000,000,000 tonnes (that is, it is equivalent to a billion metric tons), and is often used when discussing human carbon dioxide emissions. To put things in perspective, the University of Calgary explains that this is roughly the mass of all land mammals (other than humans) in the world. It is also roughly twice the mass of all of the people in the world, approximately 200 million elephants, and equivalent to 5.5 million blue whales. 

As Covid-19 hits the fossil fuel industry, the new report states that renewable energy is more cost-effective than ever, providing an opportunity to prioritize clean energy in economic recovery packages and bring the world closer to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

The analysis shows that in 2019, the amount of new renewable power capacity added (excluding large hydro) was the highest ever, at 184 gigawatts (GW). This was 20GW, or 12% more than new capacity added in 2018. It includes 118GW of new solar systems and 61GW of wind turbines. The new capacity was delivered with almost the same investment as 2018: $282.2 billion, demonstrating falling costs, say experts. Costs for electricity from new solar photovoltaic plants in the second half of 2019 were 83% lower than a decade earlier. “The world invested $282.2 billion in new renewable energy capacity (excluding large hydro) in 2019. This was a mere 1% higher than the total for the previous year, and it was 10% below the record figure of $315.1 billion set in 2017,” says the report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre and BloombergNEF (BNEF). 

A gigatonne is often used when discussing carbon dioxide emissions. It is roughly twice the mass of all of the people in the world. (Getty Images)

The report analyzes 2019 investment trends and clean energy commitments made by countries and corporations for the next decade. It shows that renewable energy has been eating away at fossil fuels' dominant share of electricity generation over the last decade. Nearly 78% of the net new gigawatts of generating capacity added globally in 2019 was in wind, solar, biomass and waste, geothermal and small hydro. Investment in renewables, excluding large hydro, was more than three times that in new fossil fuel plants.

If research and development and the funding of specialized companies, as well as the financing of generation capacity are included, then the resulting figure for total renewable energy investment was $301.7 billion in 2019. Investment in new renewable energy capacity in developed economies rose 2% in 2019, to $130 billion. There were sharp increases in outlays in the US, Spain, the Netherlands and Poland, and big falls in the UK, Germany, Australia, and Belgium. As far as developing nations are concerns, renewable energy capacity investment was $152.2 billion in 2019, down just a fraction from $152.7 billion in 2018. 

(UNEP / FS / BNEF)

The report says that commitments have been made by governments and companies globally to add 826 gigawatts of new non-hydro renewable power capacity, at a likely cost of around $1 trillion by 2030. Those commitments, however, fall far short of what would be needed to limit world temperature increases to less than 2 degrees Celsius, say experts. Getting on track to limiting global temperature rise to under 2 degrees Celsius -- the main goal of the Paris Agreement -- would require the addition of around 3,000 GW by 2030, the exact amount depending on the technology mix chosen, shows analysis. The will also fall short of last decade’s achievements, which brought around 1,200GW of new capacity for $2.7 trillion, it adds. 

The experts also found that the Covid-19 crisis has slowed down deal-making in renewables in recent months, along with that in other sectors, and this will affect investment levels in 2020. “However, governments now have the chance to tailor their economic recovery programs to accelerate the phase-out of polluting processes and the adoption of cost-competitive sustainable technologies. The stakes are high. If this chance is missed, it may be even more difficult to find the funding to decarbonize the energy system in a post-Covid-19 global economy characterized by elevated government debt and squeezed private sector finances,” say researchers.  

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