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Opinion: Climate pledges can be more ambitious on renewable energy

As policymakers and other actors assemble at the UN climate change conference, there's a sense that the euphoria of Paris is behind us. The tasks of implementation and raising ambition are ahead, says IRENA's Adnan Amin.

Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, form the cornerstone of global climate cooperation. Put forward under the Paris Agreement they represent national pledges to adapt to climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions - together, they symbolize a collective roadmap to a climate-safe future.

In 145 of the 194 NDCs, the use of renewable energy is cited as an important tool to shift to a low-carbon energy sector. After all, two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from energy production and use.

IRENA Generaldirektor Adnan Z. Amin (Jim Baker)

Adnan Z. Amin, director-general of IRENA

But the ambition expressed in the NDCs is neither a reflection of the tremendous growth in deployment we are currently witnessing, nor the incredible potential for renewables that lies ahead. In many cases, they don't even reflect the same degree of ambition as set out in national policies and laws.

While this may partly be a case of under-promising and over-delivering, it is also possible that countries simply did not foresee the kinds of developments that have taken place since the NDCs were prepared in the run-up to Paris.

National energy policies drive climate action

In 2016 alone, 265 billion dollars of investment underpinned a record 161 Gigawatt (GW) of renewable energy capacity additions, and costs hit record lows in several countries for both solar and wind technologies. Renewables have undisputedly become a primary new source of secure, low-cost, low-carbon energy for homes, communities and cities around the world.

It is not, however, the climate imperative that's driving this momentum — it is national energy policies coupled with falling costs and improving technology.  In much of the world, at least one form of renewable energy now outcompetes fossil fuel-based power generation on costs. This has motivated countries to prioritize renewables as an engine of low-carbon economic growth, even more than as a central solution to climate change.

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As a consequence, renewables are a booming business. A fundamental energy transformation is unfolding. But this is not yet happening with the speed required to fully address the climate crisis.

The well below 2°Celsius future sought under the Paris Agreement requires us to integrate shorter-term national policies with long-term climate objectives. By doing so, NDCs can play a much more central role in accelerating the transformation as catalysts for action and momentum.

NDCs don't reflect renewables' growth

The G20 is a good example of the growing gap between real-world deployment and NDC ambition. According to an IRENA report released this week, just ten G20 nations include renewable energy in their NDCs, yet all of them have clearly defined renewable energy targets written into national energy strategies.

Africa is another example. Collectively, the NDCs of African nations would add 40 GW of renewables to support emission reductions and national resilience — that is double the currently installed capacity. But their combined renewable energy targeted in national plans would result in 110 GW of new renewable energy coming online by 2030 — almost three times what is envisioned under climate commitments. IRENA estimates that even that is still three times less than the cost-effective potential for renewable energy in Africa.

If current NDCs are fully implemented, just 80 GW of renewable energy capacity would be added globally each year through 2030. That is two-thirds of what could be expected based on current deployment trends, which have seen an average of 125 GW of new renewable energy capacity brought online every year between 2010 and 2016.

More ambitious NDCs imperative

Starting in 2018, Parties to the UN climate convention will begin to take stock of their climate ambition, with a view to revising their NDCs by 2020. Out of this process, new, more ambitious NDCs are expected to emerge, reflecting the true potential of renewables.

And they must. The devastation witnessed across the Caribbean and the US in the aftermath of this summer's hurricanes, record floods across the Indian subcontinent and the declaration of drought emergencies in 20 African countries in the last 18 months are reminders of the consequences a warming planet will face.

A low-carbon energy system is technically achievable, socially beneficial and economically attractive. To succeed as a key climate solution, however, we must be prepared to act faster.

Adnan Z. Amin is the director-general of IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency.

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