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NRDC Rates G20 on Renewable Energy, Urges Greater Action at Rio+20

By Andrew Burger

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) yesterday released its 2012 Renewable Energy Scorecard, a report that ranks and analyzes G20 member nations' renewable energy production and investment from 2002-2012. In the final run-up to the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, NRDC also examines renewable energy policy frameworks, highlighting effective approaches as it seeks to promote an international accord in Rio June 20-22.

Not surprisingly, European countries have led the way forward among G20 countries when it comes to deploying and making use of renewable energy over the past decade, part-and-parcel of an emerging, more integrated approach to sustainable development, that addresses economic, social and environmental issues, NRDC found.
While progress to ramp up renewable energy production has been impressively fast among larger G20 nations, it's been amazingly fast in some smaller member states, such as Iceland, New Zealand and Spain, where renewable resources supply more than 15% of national electricity consumption.

While real progress has been made here in the US - renewable energy production has increased more than 300% in the past decade, NRDC highlights - Congressional ambivalence, evident in the lack of an integrated federal renewable energy policy framework characterized by "stop-start" policy and action, has led to repeated boom-bust cycles, NRDC's Jake Schmidt and University of California, Berkeley renewable energy expert Dan Kammen noted in a press briefing.

The Road to Rio: driving to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies

G20 governments' ongoing support of the production and burning of fossil fuels is another aspect of the report that stands out. Supporting a highly profitable, well-established fossil fuel industry that's the primary agent of man-made climate change, environmental degradation, externalized costs foisted on public finances, G20 fossil fuel subsidies nonetheless remain some 5x-6x or more higher than those for renewable energy, Schmidt and Kammen noted.

Renewable energy and clean technology is likely to play a central role in at Rio+20, as representatives and observers look for follow-through on goals agreed to at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change's (UNFCCC) COP17 conference, which took place in Durban, South Africa Nov.-Dec. 2011.

The US delegation figures to play a central role in the Rio+20 talks. It should be noted that the US government delegation is going to be hamstrung in terms of making any firm commitment to an international, or even domestic, renewable energy or carbon dioxide/greenhouse gas emissions reduction target. That's because the US Congress has failed to agree on and pass any such legislation.

That's not to say the Obama Administration cannot reaffirm its own commitment to scaling up renewable energy production and consumption and reducing CO2 emissions. And the US delegation is due to play a leading role in advancing the UN's "Sustainable Energy for All initiative," in which governments, private and public sector organizations are pledging to provide access to much less polluting sustainable energy sources by 2030.

The road to Rio: what's possible, what's achievable?

The US also has a lot to offer when it comes to two other key sustainable development issues and goals established at COP-17 in Durban: technology transfer and finance. US companies, states and the federal government have all been key players in advancing renewable energy in the US. They can, and increasingly are looking to play greater roles internationally across the supply chain in key renewable energy sectors, such as wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and wave energy markets, Schmidt and Kammen said.

Consuming a disproportionate amount worldwide electricity generation, transportation fuels while ranking at the top of G20 nations in terms of CO2 emissions, it's incumbent on the US, the EU, China and India, in particular, to join forces and do all they can to assure that they're not only intensifying their efforts to research, develop and commercialize renewable energy in their own countries, but that they're providing developing nations with the technological and financial assistance they'll need to do the same, they continued.

On the policy front, a combination of national policies effective in increasing renewable energy demand (demand-pull) on the one side and boosting renewable energy production capacity (supply-push), UCal-Berkeley's Kammen noted.

"Overall [renewable energy] investment of about $160 billion in 2011 is very impressive, but it's also worth keeping in mind that with estimates of global subsidies of fossil fuels of $400-$500 billion, the landscape is far from truly level. There's a huge amount of work governments can do, must do, to balance that out," Kammen stated.

"It's critical to note that it is a global marketplace. Developing nations are playing key roles in addition to G20 countries. A wide range of tools is proving to be effective - Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) in US states. In Europe, and increasingly and other countries Feed-in Tariffs (FiT), as well as carbon pricing is playing a role.
"There really is a diverse set of technologies, scales and market approaches being used today; the challenge is to move this forward dramatically in coming years. By 2020, [a renewable energy goal of] 15% is within reach. It's beyond what's currently on the table in terms of international agreements, but clearly within reach."

As opposed to one international renewable energy target, NRDC sees establishing nationally appropriate renewable energy targets as an effective, achievable path to international accord at Rio+20. "The focus in Rio doesn't have to be one target," Schmidt added. "What's really need is targeted short-term commitments to really scale up renewable electricity in terms of cities, companies and countries as opposed to one global target."
"There's a lot of activity to overcome cost constraints and technology barriers. We need to step up such efforts to take that up to the next level, and we need better ways to track progress over time."

Transparency in the sharing and analysis of renewable energy data and information on efforts and progress made across the G20 and Rio+20 memberships is essential. That's what the NRDC, as well as other independent organizations, are striving to provide with reports such as the 2012 G20 Renewable Energy Scorecard.
Andrew Burger headshot

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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