Poor countries are investing a lot more than rich countries in renewable energy

Rays of hope.
Rays of hope.
Image: Reuters/Christian Hartmann
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There are a few things to celebrate in a new report from the United Nations. In 2017, global investment in renewable energy grew 2% from last year to $280 billion. New renewable-power capacity added in 2017 (143 GW) far outstripped new fossil-fuel power capacity (70 GW).

But those optimistic figures belie a more troubling complete story.

The main reason for investment in renewable energy is to curb climate change, and the historical burden for the carbon emissions now causing climate change lies squarely on the shoulder of the rich world. The US and Europe, put together, have produced more than 40% of all emissions since the industrial era began. But the rich world is no longer doing enough to take its fair share of responsibility. As the chart above shows, poor countries are now investing far more into renewables than rich ones.

The reasons why are not uniform across countries. In 2017, US investment fell because as the renewable-energy market has matured, fewer venture capitalists and equity investors are putting money into the projects. That’s made financing renewable-energy projects harder across the board. UK investment dropped because the country pulled the plug on subsidies for renewable energy. Germany’s investment fell because it no longer guarantees renewables a certain minimum price, which means they aren’t always able to compete with cheaper, dirtier sources such as coal. Though investments from other rich countries, such as Australia, Sweden, and the Netherlands, are up, the drag down from the big three makes the whole rich world look bad.

Solutions to bring investment back up in the big three will vary from country to country, but all will have to start by accepting their full burden of responsibility.

To be sure, the renewables story in poor countries isn’t perfect, either. The majority of investment there comes from one country: China. The $127 billion China spent on renewables in 2017 accounted for nearly two-thirds of all investments from poor countries that year. The next biggest investor in that category was India, at just $11 billion. The good news is the cost of deploying renewables is continuing to fall rapidly, leaving lots of room for even poor countries to make their energy sources cleaner.