Wind and Solar Tech Is Not Growing Fast Enough to Meet Paris Agreement Goals

Reaching the goal requires rapid growth in the development and deployment of renewable energy.

solar panels and wind turbines under blue sky on summer landscape
Yaorusheng / Getty Images

The main question surrounding the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland over the past two weeks has been whether humanity can succeed in limiting global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels. 

Most Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenarios for limiting global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) or even 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) rely on the rapid expansion of renewable energy technologies like wind and solar. However, an analysis of the 60 largest countries published in Nature Energy found that these technologies are not growing fast enough to avoid the worst of the climate crisis. 

“Only a few countries have so far managed to reach the growth rate of either wind or solar required for climate targets,” Aleh Cherp of Central European University and Lund University tells Treehugger in an email. 

Climate Targets

The Paris agreement of 2015 set the world the goal of limiting global warming to “well below” 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) and ideally 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels. And that 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit (0.5 degrees Celsius) matters quite a bit, as the IPCC has found.

Limiting warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) could spare 10.4 million people from experiencing the impacts of sea level rise by 2100, limit the risk of an ice-free Arctic in the summer, halve the percentage of vertebrates that would lose more than half their range and keep hundreds of millions of people from poverty and climate risk by 2050.

However, reaching this goal requires rapid growth in the development and deployment of renewable energy. Half of the IPCC emissions scenarios compatible with limiting warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) require wind power to grow by more than 1.3% of the electricity supply each year and solar to grow by more than 1.4%. A quarter of the scenarios require even higher growth rates of more than 3.3% per year.

But is the world on track to meet these goals? To answer that question, the research team from Chalmers University of Technology and Lund University in Sweden and Central European University in Vienna, Austria looked at the development of wind and solar in the 60 largest countries that are responsible for more than 95% of global energy production. 

“We studied 60 largest countries and found out that the growth of renewables is first slow and erratic, then it accelerates, then it achieves its maximum growth and then it eventually slows down,” Cherp says. 

This trajectory is something that the researchers referred to as the “ S-shaped curve of technology adoption.”

Only about half of the countries in the study have yet to hit their maximum growth rate for wind and solar, so the researchers looked at the countries that had and compared their findings to the rates required by the IPCC climate scenarios. 

On average, the maximum growth rate for wind and solar stood at around 0.9% of electricity supply per year for wind and 0.6% for solar, which, Cherp says, “is much slower than what is required.” 

Bridging the Gap

There were a few countries that did manage to meet the growth rates needed for one or more renewable technology, at least at one point. For wind, that sweet spot was hit in Portugal, Ireland, the Philippines, Spain, Brazil, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Poland, and the United Kingdom. For offshore wind, it was reached in the U.K., Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands. For solar, it was only reached in Chile. 

In some countries, including Spain, Brazil, and the Philippines, the growth rates slowed down after hitting the fast-enough sweet spot, but Cherp says they could in theory be sped up again. 

Overall, he says three things need to happen if wind and solar are to develop quickly enough to meet the 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) target.

  1. Every country needs to move as fast as the frontrunners.
  2. Countries need to move quickly on both wind and solar at the same time.
  3. Countries need to maintain fast growth rates for one to three decades. 

“The experience and conditions (geographic, economic) of these frontrunner countries should be studied to replicate their experience elsewhere,” Cherp says.

Boosting Transformation

The research also considered what will happen in the countries that have not yet reached their maximum growth rates for wind and solar. These technologies were first rolled out in the European Union and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. However, they will need to be embraced quickly by less wealthy nations in the developing world in order to halt the impacts of climate change. 

There has been some debate as to how successful this transition will be. Some argue that wind and solar will spread more quickly globally because new adapters can learn from the experience of countries that have been using these technologies for longer. However, others have argued that later adapters face obstacles that would counteract this advantage. The study results are closer to the latter view.

“We also show that the later introduction of these technologies does not lead to a faster growth, which means that the maximum growth rates are unlikely to increase as the bulk of growth shifts from the early adopters in the European Union and OECD to the rest of the world,” the study authors wrote.

As COP26 concludes, research suggests that the current emissions-reduction pledges made by participating countries through 2030 put the world on track for a full 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit (2.4 degrees Celsius) of warming by 2100. 

Perhaps fortunately in this context, Cherp tells Treehugger that decisions made at past COPs had not made much of a difference in rates of wind and solar deployment. However, he thought one type of international agreement that would help would be an agreement designed to support developing countries in the transition towards renewable energy. 

“It could be grant funding, financing or technical assistance. We need to deploy such large volumes of renewables that no international funding would be able to cover even a small part of it, but various (financial, technical) support in the beginning could help the initial 'take-off' that will hopefully trigger future stable growth,” he says.

View Article Sources
  1. Cherp, Aleh, et al. "National Growth Dynamics of Wind and Solar Power Compared To the Growth Required For Global Climate Targets." Nature Energy, vol. 6, no. 7, 2021, pp. 742-754., doi:10.1038/s41560-021-00863-0

  2. Allen. Myles R., et al. "Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees Celsius." Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

  3. "Glasgow's One Degree 2030 Credibility Gap: Net Zero's Lip Service to Climate Action." Climate Action Tracker, 2021.