Replacing fossil fuels with cleaner forms of power will eventually become an imperative. China and Germany have grasped the importance of staking out an early dominance of the energy sources of the 21st Century.
China and Germany are ahead of the pack when it comes to renewable energy
It's widely known that China has overtaken the United States to become the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
The growing energy needs of its 1.4 billion people are met largely by fossil fuels - China gets 70 percent of its energy from coal, according to the International Energy Agency.
Yet another picture is also emerging: China has become the world's biggest investor in clean energy.
"In China, investment in renewable energies – especially solar, but also wind – are extremely high…we're not alone in the world, there's competition in this sector," Dirk Messner, director of the German Development Institute, told Deutsche Welle.
According to a recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance white paper, China spent nearly $49 billion on renewable energies last year, up 28 percent. It accounted for nearly a quarter of the world's record global investment of $211 billion.
Germany's $41 billion dollars of new investment put it second in the world and marked a 100 percent increase over the year before. The United States came in third with nearly $30 billion of investment.
"With the exception of perhaps Denmark, no other countries have shown they have such a clear vision of renewable energy," Stefan Gsänger, Secretary General of the World Wind Energy Association, said of the top two investors.
Germany underlined its massive rollout of solar energy, installing more rooftop photovoltaic systems last year than the rest of the world combined in 2009.
Germany installed more rooftop solar in 2010 than the rest of the world in 2009
Germany now generates a fifth of its electricity from renewable sources. In the past decade it has trebled this output, largely thanks to a system of feed-in tariffs.
"The feed-in tariff program has been a very successful promotion as we've seen the share of renewable energy in Germany increase dramatically," Claudia Kemfert from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) told Deutsche Welle.
The scheme works by guaranteeing renewable energy providers with a floor price for their service and obliging utilities to buy it. The system encourages efficiency and innovation by gradually lowering the guaranteed price over a span of years.
Utilities initially pass on the added cost to their consumers, but Germany's experience has shown that the rush to investment and competition within the industry bring down technology costs over time.
"10 years ago, the best expectations for renewables were a third of what they are today," said Martin Frick at E3G, an organization that promotes sustainable development.
Similar feed-in tarrifs have been adopted in over 50 countries.
Germany's growth in renewables also has other benefits. The sector has created over 300,000 new jobs, according to official figures.
Yet the road ahead remains steep.
Germany aims to generate 80 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by the middle of the century. Factoring in fuel and heating, it wants to get more than half of all its energy from clean power by 2050.
It has also pledged to do this nuclear-free. Chancellor Merkel's government reversed its policy in the wake of the Fukushima disaster this year. It will now phase out nuclear power by 2022.
"The target that has been set out is within reach, both from a technical and economic perspective," Kemfert, the DIW's chief energy economist, said.
"Public acceptance of renewable energies might be an issue, but the feed-in tariffs have done a great job of promoting the technology that is available."
Recycling raw materials is key to making the earth's supplies go further
Besides exploring new means of generating energy, it is also essential to be more sparing with available resources, said Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program.
Steiner told Deutsche Welle that it was imperative to follow the example set by nature, where one organism's waste is another's food.
"The Chinese call the concept the circular economy," he said. "In Japan it is reduce, recycle and reuse – these principles are not new, what we have to do is enable them economically."
Through the reuse of packaging materials, Germany has already proved how successful recycling can be.
The country recycles more than 70 percent of the paper it uses, a figure that is well above the average of 56 percent in the European Union, according to figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Germany is also among the top recyclers of glass in Europe, recycling 90 percent of this material. In this regard, Stephane Arditi, from the European Environment Bureau (EEB) says Germany is a role model.
"The European commitment is to recycle 50 percent of municipal solid waste, but Germany has committed to 65 percent, so that shows a lot of dedication to this issue."
Waste not, want not
Germany's system of feed-in tarrifs have had a dramatic effect in mobilizing investment
Yet Arditi says Germany also takes a contradictory approach to recycling.
"We have a great commitment from Germany regarding municipal solid waste, but less so when it comes to electrical and electronic equipment waste (WEE)," Arditi said.
"The European proposal suggests that 65 percent of this waste should be properly collected by 2016, but Germany hasn't come on board with this."
Ariditi says scores of countries still need to make more ambitious commitments to recycle and, more importantly, follow through on them.
Author: Helle Jeppesen, Laura Schweiger
Editor: Nathan Witkop