Five reasons to be optimistic about clean energy in 2021

December 24, 2020


The energy sector, still dominated by fossil fuels, is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. We know people and nations need reliable sources of energy to power hospitals and light schools, and to safely cook, heat or cool their homes.  We know we need to switch to sustainable energy. Yet despite progress, we are not on track to meet our climate goals and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 7 – universal access to clean, affordable and reliable energy.

Much more needs to be done. But the clean energy solutions that can get us there exist, and there is growing momentum to make them political and investment priorities. Here are our five reasons to be optimistic.

1) Clean energy is a smart investment  

Fossil fuels used to be less expensive than cleaner energy, but this is changing. Renewables are becoming more affordable every year, and some options are now cheaper than fossil fuels. The price of solar has decreased by 89 percent since 2010. It is now cheaper to go solar than to build new coal power plants in most countries, and solar is now the cheapest electricity in history. Amid an exceptionally challenging year, and despite suffering setbacks, the renewables sector has shown some resilience.

This fall in price, coupled with technological progress and the introduction of innovative business models, means we are now at a tipping point. Energy efficiency technologies can also deliver climate benefits. The right efficiency policies could enable the world to achieve more than 40 percent of the emissions cuts needed to even without new technology.  

We now need massive investment from the public and private sectors. To help catalyse this, UNDP has developed the De-risking Renewable Energy Investment framework and supports countries to create an enabling environment for large scale clean energy investments.

2) There is growing momentum for carbon neutrality

Throughout the year countries have pledged to build back better, greener, fairer. With support from UNDP’s Climate Promise, 115 countries committed to submitting enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions.

High-emitting economies such as China, Japan, South Korea, the UK and the EU have made net-zero commitments. The announcements at or just before the Climate Ambition Summit, together with those expected early next year, mean that countries representing around 65 percent of global CO2 emissions, and around 70 percent of the world’s economy, will commit to reaching net zero emissions or carbon neutrality. President-elect Joe Biden has announced that the United States will seek to rejoin the Paris Agreement early in his presidency.

These pledges now need to be translated into action. Yet at the time of writing, more than half of all public money committed to the energy sector as part of COVID-19 recovery packages in G20 countries are for fossil fuels. In 2019, US$500 billion was spent on fossil fuel subsidies. Ambitious commitments are a strong signal and a necessary first step towards reaching net-zero emissions. We now need to build on them.

3) Clean energy can power a green recovery that leaves no-one behind and is in line with the Paris Agreement

Clean energy is a win-win solution to recover from COVID-19. It can improve healthcare for the world’s poorest. A reliable supply of  electricity is key for health centres to function. Our Solar for Health programme brings clean, reliable, and affordable energy to 900 health facilities in 13 countries. As COVID-19 vaccines - some needing to be stored at -70°C - get rolled out, powering a sustainable and reliable cold chain will be critical.

Clean energy is also an engine for job creation. The energy transition can create 18 million jobs by 2030, even when accounting for the inevitable losses of fossil fuel jobs. Investing in renewables could create nearly three times as many jobs as investing in fossil fuels.

The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated momentum for healthier, greener cities. As the world is rapidly urbanizing, energy efficiency in buildings, sustainable cooling and heating, smart urban planning and sustainable transport options – from electric vehicles to enabling walking and cycling -- are key for the future of cities.

4) Every year, tens of millions of people get clean energy

Between 2010 and 2018 411 million people gained access to clean electricity, and an additional 200 million to clean cooking technologies and fuels. This huge leap towards achieving SDG7 is life-changing for many. Sustainable energy is necessary to achieve nearly every other SDG. Renewable energy systems such as solar mini-grids are good solutions to provide the affordable and reliable electricity communities need to power schools and health centres, and to support small businesses, sustainable agriculture and food security. Clean technologies and fuels for cooking can also improve gender equality.

However, population growth in some parts of the world offsets some of this progress. The number of people without electricity in sub Saharan Africa is projected to increase from around 580 million in 2018 to around 680 million in 2030. To accelerate action on energy, a new coalition launched by the Rockefeller Foundation with UNDP as founding member committed to end energy poverty by bringing sustainable energy to one billion people by 2030.

5) 2021 will be the year of global action for sustainable energy

In September 2021, for the first time in 40 years, the United Nations will host a High Level Dialogue on Energy. Organized by UN-Energy, this event will be instrumental for countries, businesses, civil society and international institutions to step up action on sustainable energy. UN-Energy co-chair and UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner recently called for a reinforcement of global energy governance: “We know clean energy can both deliver universal energy access and contribute to tackling the climate crisis. We know it can power a green recovery and the transition to a sustainable future. But we need to do more, we need to do it faster, and we need to do it together—we must join forces to step up action.”

Phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to green economies is a monumental challenge. But the solutions exist. We need to finance them, to scale them up, to accelerate them. On top of existing partnerships such as the Climate Investment Platform, we will be announcing new initiatives early 2021 to make it happen. We are ready to rise to the challenge. Join us in making 2021 the year of global action for sustainable energy.