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While the world must wait to see whether US president-elect Joe Biden can fulfil his election promise of a $2tn Green New Deal, nations elsewhere in the world are setting carbon-neutral targets and pushing ahead with mega-programmes to cut emissions, create jobs and reduce energy prices. Here are some of the regional frontrunners.
Under the coalition of its socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, Spain has picked up the pace from a jog to a run in its break from fossil fuels this year, and is now one of the countries leading the European pack.
Last week, the government was the latest to announce plans to go carbon neutral by 2050 and it is overseeing one of the fastest shifts away from coal the world has seen.
Over the coming three years, Spain has committed €27bn to green energy spending – a downpayment on the €750bn investment it forecasts will be needed to fund the move away from fossil fuels. By 2050, the decarbonisation strategy envisages a 90% reduction in emissions, the reforestation of 20,000 hectares and the recovery of 50,000 hectares of wetlands. Renewable power, meanwhile, will rise from 20% of the energy mix to 97%.
Action is already under way. In May, the cabinet approved a draft law on climate change, which outlined more ambitious goals than the EU at the time on renewables and energy efficiency. The bill would ban new coal, oil and gas extraction projects and end direct fossil fuel subsidies.
Spain is also shutting down 69% of its coal-fired power plants this year and next – a pace of decommissioning not seen anywhere else in the world. Last year, Spain installed more new onshore wind than any other country in Europe.
Far from being a drain on employment and economy, the Spanish government says its decarbonisation plan will increase the workforce by 1.6%. But the country will have to convince investors that its legal framework is more stable this time than during the “solar garden” bubble that followed subsidy promises in 2007. When those were abolished, confidence in the sector took at hit along with jobs.
The ecological transition minister, Teresa Ribera, predicts the country will go well beyond the 2030 targets set by the European commission and has promised to push for still more ambitious policies in Spain and elsewhere in Europe.
This is part of a broader trend. In Europe, renewables have generated more power than coal for the first time this year. The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has said she wants Europe to be the world’s first carbon-neutral continent. Over the next 10 years, the commission forecasts investment of at least €1tn to achieve this goal, including a quarter of the EU budget. This month, the European parliament voted in favour of climate neutrality by 2050 and 60% cuts in emissions by 2030 (compared with 1990 levels). Further progress has been seen in individual countries, including Denmark, Germany, France and (outside the EU) Britain.
Asia: South Korea
Four years after being labelled the world’s biggest carbon villain, South Korea has bid to be one of the heroes this year with a $61bn Green New Deal and a commitment to go carbon neutral by 2050.
President Moon Jae-in has moved to end South Korea’s dependence on coal and create green jobs as his party promised in April’s successful election campaign for the national assembly.
By 2025, the Green New Deal would bring about 230,000 more energy-saving buildings, 1.13m electric and hydrogen-powered cars, and an increase in renewable energy capacity to 42.7 GW from 12.7 GW last year.
Money will also be made available to upgrade public rental housing and schools to make them zero-energy, and to expand green areas in cities. To improve energy efficiency, smart meters will be fitted in an additional 5 million apartments and communities will be given incentives to connect to micro-grids supplied with decentralised, low-carbon energy.
The plan aims to support Korean industrial conglomerates that have been hard hit by the pandemic. Hyundai, Kia, Samsung and EM Korea will be among the biggest beneficiaries of plans to build 45,000 new electric vehicle charging points and 450 hydrogen refuelling units.
Tempering the optimism is South Korea’s past record of high emissions and false hopes. The last time the country promised “green growth” – after the 2008-9 financial crisis – it led to an environmentally disastrous policy of more concrete riverbanks and higher emissions. Today, coal supplies about 40% of Korea’s electricity and seven new coal power plants are under construction. In 2016, activists labelled South Korea the world’s biggest carbon villain.
A new generation of campaigners believe South Korea has turned a new page. They want to see an early halt to overseas coal financing and a strong 2030 target to reduce domestic emissions.
They are encouraged by signs of a climate race-to-the-top in east Asia, where the opposite has long been true. China and Japan are also major users and funders of coal, but both countries have committed this year to carbon-neutral goals.
Latin America: Uruguay
Last year, Uruguay was ranked fourth in the world in the proportion of electricity it supplies from wind and solar. The International Energy Agency said the country’s 36% share was behind only Denmark (50%), Lithuania (41%) and Luxembourg (37%). If hydropower is added, Uruguay leaps ahead of them all with 97%.
This represents a spectacular transition. Twenty years ago, this South American country burned oil to produce almost a third of its electricity and had to import power from Argentina. The change came between 2008 and 2015 under former presidents Tabaré Vázquez and José Mujica, who wanted to reduce costs and make energy more affordable.
The secret was a proactive state rather than a big-spending one. Government encouraged investors by promising fixed feed-in tariffs and stable policies. More than US$7bn poured into the sector, helping Uruguay to reduce its emissions by 20%. Droughts have also been rarer because the grid is less dependent on hydropower.
Asad Rehman, the co-organiser of Global Green New Deal Campaign, said the success of Uruguay’s transition reflects an ideal balance of social and climate priorities. “It is not just about carbon, but also cutting energy prices and tackling energy poverty. Social justice is an imperative.”
The picture is mixed elsewhere in South and Central America. Costa Rica has won international kudos for generating almost all of its electricity with renewables, particularly geothermal and hydropower. The latter also provides most of the power for Brazil and Paraguay though it often has a devastating impact on ecosystems and wildlife.
Renewables already provide more than 93% of Kenya’s electricity and the government plans to expand further so everyone in the country has access either to the grid or community solar power by 2022.
The carbon footprint of the population of 47 million is tiny compared with wealthy nations in the northern hemisphere so economic – rather than climate – considerations are the main drivers for an energy transition. Solar, wind, hydropower and geothermal energy is increasingly cheaper and more practical than fossil fuels. The main challenge is securing the initial investment.
The country has substantial renewable resources to tap, prompting many observers to say it has the potential to bypass fossil fuel-driven economic development. Last month, the African Development Bank announced the completion of the 105 MWe Menengai geothermal power plant in the Rift Valley, cementing Kenya’s leading role on the continent for geothermal electricity production, which has increased more than fourfold in the past six years.
Kenya is also home to east Africa’s biggest solar generation plant – the $128.5m China-funded Garissa Plant where more than 200,000 PV panels soak up the energy from the sunshine each day. In many remote areas, small villages that are far from the grid are able to generate electricity with just a few dozen rooftop panels.
These developments – along with expanded wind and hydropower – have pushed the proportion of the population with electricity from 63% in 2017 to 75% today.
Heymi Bahar, the lead author of the International Energy Agency’s Renewables market report, said Kenya along with other African nations, such as Rwanda and Nigeria, “have a chance to leapfrog” fossil fuel energy systems if they can draw in more private investment. That once meant expensive subsidies, but Bahar said this is no longer the case. Good regulations and policies are enough.
“Renewables are becoming cheaper and more accessible. In Africa, the potential is there, the willingness is there,” he said. “Renewables do not need subsidies any more. They just need long-term revenue streams. That is determined by clear policies.”