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Global Signs of Leadership on Clean Energy

This post originally appeared on the National Journal's Energy Experts blog.

As evidence of climate change mounts, President Obama has made it clear that tackling this issue will be a priority in his second term. Yet, as weeks go by, the administration has been slow to clarify its strategy. With each passing day, it becomes harder and more expensive to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, other global powers are moving forward--and many of them carry valuable lessons which American policymakers can look to. The most successful countries are showing national leadership, strong and consistent policies, and commitment to clean energy.

Where, then, are signs of progress on clean energy?

Germany’s Energiewende: Leading the Way

High on the list is Germany, whose ambitious energy transformation strategy--or “Energiewende”--aims to reduce greenhouse gases by 80 to 95 percent by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. This will be achieved by enhancing energy efficiency, reducing primary energy consumption by 50 percent, and ramping up renewable energy to at least 80 percent of electricity consumption in the same time-frame. The current policies were put in place more than a decade ago, and accelerated in 2011 following the Fukushima disaster. Germany already gets nearly 25 percent of its electricity from renewables, up from just under 7 percent 13 years ago. That is no small feat for a country that relies heavily on manufacturing, and which is the world’s fifth-largest economy and third-largest exporter.

Germany’s commitment to renewables has helped create jobs and drive economic opportunities. Since 2004, clean energy investments have grown by 122 percent, and renewable energy sector jobs have more than doubled to around 380,000.

Germany’s experiences provide valuable insights, including for U.S. policymakers. Most importantly, underlying Germany’s approach has been a strong national commitment and vision to shift to renewable energy. Successive governments have used stable long-term policies to turn this into a reality, which has created a secure atmosphere where renewable energy is considered to be a safe choice.

China: Signs of Progress, Though Challenges Remain

While China’s heavy dependence on fossil fuels continues to be a serious concern, the government has incorporated renewable energy and efficiency measures into its national strategy. Like Germany, China has set national renewable energy targets and its leaders have shown a strong commitment to reach its goals. The government has recently announced plans to raise its solar production target to 35 GW by 2015, and it has a target of 100 GW of installed wind power by the same year. In 2012, the country led the world in renewable energy investment, reaching a record $68 billion.

While China’s massive coal consumption is troubling, there are signs that its dependence on coal may not be inevitable. According to analysis by WRI experts, China’s coal sector has demonstrated signs of economic weakness. Investment in coal plants in 2011 was not even half of what was invested in 2005, and most coal-fired plants have been losing money since 2011. Furthermore, public concern around health and environmental impacts of China’s coal use is well-documented, and the government has acknowledged its need to respond.

China has a high level of motivation and self-interest to act (see more in this ChinaFAQs issue brief), including the following specific incentives:

  • China seeks to better incorporate environmental concerns into its development agenda.

  • China’s leaders see economic opportunity in clean energy to drive job creation and position the country as a leader in world markets.

  • China is driven to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and increase its share of clean energy to enhance its energy security.

  • The country is projected to be extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change--including sea-level rise, destruction of crops from drought, and more extreme storms.

  • Finally, China understands that asserting leadership on climate change can help position the country as a leader on the international stage.

China and Germany represent just two of many countries seeking to meet growing energy demands, including expansion of clean energy. In fact, at least 118 countries have renewable energy targets, and 65 offer predictable feed-in tariffs. Remarkably, about half of new electric capacity worldwide in 2011 came from renewable sources.

Many of these countries offer experiences and lessons that could benefit the United States as well. Policymakers just need to take a look beyond their own borders to understand the opportunities in front of them.

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