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OPINION: Switch to renewables to come in from the cold

by María Mendiluce | We Mean Business
Wednesday, 15 December 2021 12:26 GMT

A general view of wind turbines at Westmill Wind Farm & Solar Park, which is owned by the community and supports local renewable energy, at Watchfield, near Swindon, Britain, September 24, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Boyers

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Ramping up clean power can not only ensure our long-term survival but keep the lights on in the meantime

By María Mendiluce

María Mendiluce is CEO of the We Mean Business Coalition.

For the thousands of Brits left without power for almost two weeks after Storm Arwen, reconnection is unlikely to be the end of their energy woes as the UK and Europe face a winter of price hikes and supply issues.

Exposed to increasingly unpredictable weather events and geopolitical tension yet continually propped up with fossil fuel subsidies, the global energy system is fraught with shortcomings and vulnerabilities.

Besides its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, the sector’s instability has also resulted in dozens of energy suppliers folding in the past three years.

The world urgently needs to transition to a green power system, that includes more storage and interconnected power systems that bring flexibility, not only for our long-term survival but to keep the lights on in the meantime.

Beyond environmental advantages, a green energy system is more diverse, and has the potential to provide greater resilience and stability, while allowing many more countries worldwide to use domestic resources to generate power.

But to successfully reinvent the energy system to become more robust, affordable and sustainable, governments and businesses must work together hand in glove to power a smooth transition to renewables.

And since accelerating the decarbonization of the power sector can bring benefits to consumers, countries and the climate alike, it is an opportunity to seize with both hands.

In the first instance, building on the outcomes of COP26, it is vital that national governments send clear signals to the energy market that public support for fossil fuels is over, using both carrot and stick to consistently prioritise renewable energy and grid systems investments.

This means governments putting an end to public coal financing immediately with fossil fuel subsidies removed by 2025 at the latest as well as phasing down unabated coal-fired power generation as agreed at COP26.

It also means more public investment in infrastructure to support green energy generation and storage. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), around 70% of total clean energy investment will need to come from private developers, consumers and financiers, leaving a significant expansion in public financing needed to cover the remainder.

This public finance is crucial both to support the transition domestically but also globally, with advanced economies  supporting developing countries to leapfrog fossil fuels in their industrialisation.

The $8.5 billion deal agreed at COP26 to help finance the just energy transition in South Africa, supported by the National Business Initiative, is an example of how business and governments can design pathways to transition out of coal while supporting the workforce.

Policymakers can further stimulate the energy transition in the private sector by lifting barriers to corporate purchasing of renewable electricity. This would help trigger more investment by companies than currently allowed in many jurisdictions.

In addition, governments and authorities can give preference to renewable options in public procurement contracts.

Member companies of the global corporate renewable energy initiative RE100 have said, for example, that Australia, mainland China, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan are among the 10 most difficult geographies for sourcing renewables.

This is making corporate 100% renewables goals very difficult to achieve. However, encouragingly, RE100 members’ advocacy has helped drive some policy progress in Japan and Korea.  

With more favourable conditions in place, a more competitive and coherent renewable energy sector will emerge.

Businesses have already demonstrated an appetite for a well-supported and consistent transition, with members of RE100 now generating a combined demand for renewable electricity greater than that of the UK.

Meanwhile, initiatives that focus on the decarbonisation of sectors that are traditionally difficult to abate, such as the First Movers Coalition, SteelZero and the Sustainable Freight Buyers Alliance, supported by the We Mean Business Coalition, show how industry can work with government to shift demand to cleaner sources across the energy sector.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the transformation possible with the force of the entire market.

Storm Arwen and the ongoing tension over gas supplies across Europe will not be the last threats to the energy system.

A more resilient and reliable energy system is in everyone’s interests, both short-term and long-term, and governments have the power to set in motion the transition we urgently need.