Entering the age of renewable energy

Posted: 27 July 2004

Author: Janet L. Sawin

"The age of renewables has now begun," proclaimed Germany's Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin at the close of the International Conference for Renewable Energies in Bonn where 154 nations pledged to make renewable energy "a most important and widely available source of energy," reports Janet Sawin.

Germany's Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Photo: Ostermeier/Renewables 2004
Germany's Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Photo: Ostermeier/Renewables 2004
Speaking to the delegates at Renewables 2004, Germany's Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder announced further commitments to renewables on the part of his Government.Photo: Ostermeier
Approximately 3,600 participants - including several heads of state, 121 ministers and government representatives, technology experts, business executives and non-governmental leaders - gathered in Bonn, Germany for the Conference, commonly known as Renewables 2004, in early June.

One of the three key outcomes of the conference is the International Action Programme for Renewable Energies. This document contains nearly 200 commitments by governments, international financial institutions, state and local governments, and private actors to expand the use of renewables worldwide. The German government estimates that, by 2015, these actions will avoid 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year. While not all of the entries represent new or significant targets, a number are particularly noteworthy:

  • China announced that "new renewables"* will represent 10 per cent of the country's electric capacity by 2010, and 12 per cent by 2020 - despite a projected doubling in electricity demand over this period. Further, renewable energy will meet up to 17 per cent of total projected 2020 energy demand. In addition to electricity, China will work to expand the use of renewables for space and water heating, and will advance the use of biofuels for transportation.

  • Germany will provide up to €500 million over the next five years for low-interest loans for renewable energy and efficiency projects in developing countries. Germany also reaffirmed its commitment to meet 20 per cent of total electric needs with renewable energy by 2020, a target that is now legally binding.

  • The Philippines committed to prioritizing the development and use of renewables over fossil fuels and set ambitious targets. The nation aims to double its renewables capacity by 2013 and to become the world's largest producer of geothermal electricity, the leading wind power producer in Southeast Asia, and a regional leader in the manufacture and export of photovoltaic (PV) cells and modules.
Political commitment

While the pledges in the Action Programme were voluntary, participants are now committed to tangible progress. In addition to these commitments, all countries represented at the conference endorsed a Political Declaration that stresses the importance of renewable energies for meeting global energy needs, contributing to sustainable development, helping to alleviate poverty, and reducing the threat of global climate change. According to this Declaration, all targets included in the Action Programme will be monitored within the formal framework of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. For the first time, a process has been established in international law to monitor progress toward specific goals that countries set for themselves.

Governments also pledged to establish a Global Policy Network to facilitate and promote an open exchange of ideas and experiences regarding policy frameworks, financing options, and research and capacity development. In addition, the high-level dialogue begun in Bonn will continue - a follow-up meeting is planned within the next 2-3 years in a developing country, perhaps in China.

The third major conference outcome is the Policy Recommendations for Renewable Energies, which provides a menu of options for decision-makers based on experiences to date of policies enacted around the world.

Global expansion

Renewables 2004 was first announced by German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, and viewed as an opportunity to move beyond the watered-down agreement on renewable energies reached in Johannesburg. The primary aim of the conference was to prepare the ground for a global expansion of renewables, as part of a broader strategy to create a more efficient and sustainable energy future. Renewables 2004 was the first major international attempt to advance the development and use of renewable energy since the UN Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy held in Nairobi, Kenya in 1981.

This conference was unique in that, while it was a formal intergovernmental meeting, official participants included the UN and other international organizations, as well as a variety of other key groups. Delegates representing a range of interests-including the private sector, trade unions, environmental organizations, women's groups, local governments and others-were able to express their views and to provide input.

Amid the backdrop of rising oil prices and increasing concern about the environmental and health costs of a fossil fuel economy, much of the world has now recognised that a dramatic expansion of renewables must be a key priority. It is hoped that the political legitimacy of this conference will accelerate the technological and economic momentum that is already propelling energy sources such as wind, solar and bioenergy into the heart of the world's energy systems.

*"New renewables" exclude traditional biomass and large-scale hydropower.

Janet L. Sawin is Director of the Energy and Climate Change Program at the Worldwatch Institute. She recently received a doctorate in international energy and environmental policy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and currently writes about energy and climate change issues.

Related link:

Renewables 2004