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Has clean energy hit a plateau?

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Bogdan Cristel/Reuters/File

(Read caption) The view from atop a wind turbine 155 miles east of Bucharest, Romania. Despite breakthroughs in clean energy, the average unit of energy emits about the same amount of carbon dioxide as it did 20 years ago, according to a new study.

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Progress towards a more sustainable world energy supply has stalled, according to two separate studies released Wednesday. 

Despite significant growth in wind and solar, the average unit of energy emits about the same amount of carbon dioxide as it did 20 years ago, according to the International Energy Agency. That's largely because the continued growth of worldwide coal use offsets regional gains in renewable generation, the authors say. A separate Pew study finds investment in the clean energy sector has slowed recently, although overall capacity is up.

“As world temperatures creep higher due to ever-increasing emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide – two thirds of which come from the energy sector – the overall lack of progress should serve as a wake-up call,” IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said in a press release. “We cannot afford another 20 years of listlessness."

The gloomy overall picture belies breakthroughs in individual sectors.

Global solar power capacity grew by 42 percent between 2011 and 2012, the IEA found, and wind grew by 19 percent. Sales of electric vehicles doubled and a record 1.2 million hybrids were sold worldwide. India, China, Brazil and other emerging economies have implemented policies to spur development of renewable capacity.

These advances fall short of what Ms. Van der Hoeven is a necessary global shift away from fossil fuels and towards low-carbon technologies. Governments must dramatically increase investment in energy efficiency and clean energy, the study concludes, to avoid potentially catastrophic warming of the planet. 

Free-market advocates offer a different perspective. Government should play a role in basic research, they say, but it should be up to private investors to apply that research.

The US shift from carbon-heavy coal to cleaner natural gas is an example of market forces at work, said David Kreutzer, a research fellow in energy economics and climate change at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

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"That has probably done more for lowering CO2 emissions than subsidized renewables have in the past 15 years," he said.

Investors did not look favorably upon renewables last year. Global clean energy financing fell 11 percent, to $269 billion, from 2011, according to the Pew study, also released Wednesday. That was largely the result of curtailed incentive programs in a number of countries, among them Spain, Italy, and Germany, according to Pew.

Still, the industry managed to add a record 88 gigawatts of additional capacity in 2012, Pew found, and the broader trend line for investments is more favorable. Overall investment in clean energy in 2012 was five times greater than it was in 2004.

"Every year, new markets open up and more renewable power is deployed around the world," said Phyllis Cuttino, director of Pew’s clean energy program, in a press release. "Even though government policies have been uneven and unpredictable in certain markets, the economic, environmental, and security benefits of clean technologies are driving the sector forward."

China has reclaimed the lead in the sector. The country attracted $65.1 billion in clean-energy investments in 2012, a 20 percent increase over 2011, according to Pew. That puts it ahead of the US, which saw a 37 percent decline in investment, down to $35.6 billion.


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