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    Ivanpah solar plant. Image: Justin Elliot / Flickr

    One Quarter of the World Will Run on Clean Energy by the End of the Decade

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    The Paris-based International Energy Agency is perhaps the world’s most august energy advisory body. It was formed in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis to advise world governments on how to respond to supply shocks and to serve as a reliable source of nonpartisan information on global energy issues. Now four decades old and inclusive of 29 member states, it’s a pretty conservative institution.

    Last Friday, it quietly released its very sexily-named Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report 2015. The report concluded that by 2020, 26 percent of the world’s energy—over a quarter—will be generated by renewable sources. The agency calls it “a remarkable shift in a very limited period of time.”

    And it is! The report doesn’t contain many new jaw-dropping revelations, but it does provide a good opportunity to step back for a second and recognize that despite the relentless march of gloomy climate change—the seas are still rising, the poles are still melting, and faster than ever—humans around the world are making distinct changes to address it.

    According to the IEA, we’re on track to add 700 gigawatts (or one billion watts) worth of renewable power generating capacity over the next five years. In other words, IEA notes, “By 2020, the amount of global electricity generation coming from renewable energy will be higher than today’s combined electricity demand of China, India and Brazil.” All of it renewable.

    That, according to the report, is also more than twice the amount of power needed to run all of Japan, and it will account for more than two-thirds of new additions to the world’s generation capacity. That’s a lot of new solar panels and wind turbines. That means the clean power tax credits in the US, the solar incentives in Germany, the carbon price in Europe, the massive investment in panel production in China—all policies enacted to spur clean energy development in the face of climate change—are working. Maybe not quickly enough, but they’re working.

    Right now, 22 percent of the world’s energy comes from clean sources (hydro, wind, solar, mostly), and as that share is growing, rapidly, the stock of dirty ones is falling.

    For instance, in the US alone, as of 2015, 40 percent of the nation’s coal plants, that were running just five years ago, have been shuttered. Fossil fuel plants are still being added in power-hungry nations like India and China, but the once-breakneck pace of installment is slowing, too, and may even peak soon.

    “Renewables are poised to seize the crucial top spot in global power supply growth, but this is hardly time for complacency,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said at the press conference held in Istanbul, at the G20 Energy Ministers Meeting, to announce the report’s release. “Governments must remove the question marks over renewables if these technologies are to achieve their full potential, and put our energy system on a more secure, sustainable path.”

    Birol is right; even though these figures are encouraging, the rate of clean energy adoption may not be fast enough to prevent us from burning through our carbon budget. Cleantech industries may be able to survive, even thrive without subsidies, but good policy and incentives could and should continue to speed their rise. Many different scholarly blueprints have, at this point, been put forward to demonstrate how something closer to 100 percent clean energy could be achieved as soon as 2050. The current trajectory is, of course, well below that.

    But the IEA’s report is evidence that, in spite of the apparent pervasity of American climate denial and Congress’s obstructionism, the political and economic power of the fossil fuel industry, and how cheap it is to burn coal (if you don’t count the environmental and health impacts)—a full one-quarter of the planet will be powered by renewable energy in a matter of years. And as denial fades away and the politics of inaction become untenable, there’s reason to be optimistic we can do better than that, and faster.