On Jan. 26, 75 countries signed the statutes of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the first intergovernmental agency exclusively focused on the promotion of green power sources like wind and solar.
“This is very historic,” Michael Eckhart, executive director of the non-profit American Council on Renewable Energy and who attended the conference in Bonn, told IPS.
With a staff of 120 and a modest 25-million-dollar budget, IRENA will support and advise governments on how to build capacity, improve financing, effect technology transfers and boost know-how for renewable energies.
The German government said its aim is “to close an institutional gap”. But some observers are seeking clarification about its mission and standing in the existing network of global environmental bodies.
This includes the International Energy Agency (IEA), the United Nations Environment Programme, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, as well as numerous non-governmental organisations such as the Renewable Energy Network for the 21st century (REN21).
“It is still unclear what role this agency can play,” Sven Teske, Greenpeace International’s renewable energy director, told IPS. “The IRENA is not yet a United Nations body so it is not binding.”
He noted that IRENA’s budget is one-tenth of Greenpeace’s, and the environmental group still struggles to influence policy.
In addition, some of the world’s biggest polluters and energy consumers – like China and the United States – are not among the signatories of IRENA.
However, advocates do see positive signs, especially in the U.S., where the day after Hillary Clinton as sworn in as secretary of state, a decision was taken to reverse the George W. Bush administration’s boycott of the meeting and to send an observer to Bonn.
Now the priority is to get the United States back on board climate change negotiations and greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets – an objective to which IRENA is assumed to be a facilitator.
Despite assurances from Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s environment minister, that it will operate without interference, “this might be 10 years too late,” Teske said. “Right now we are at a very crucial moment and do not have time to wait for setting up of the bureaucracy of an agency, which will not be able to work within the next one or two years.”
Most environmental groups’ highest priority is to get governmental agreement to shift their energy policies away from the fossil fuels which are driving climate change.
The Kyoto Protocol follow-up process, as well as the United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Copenhagen in December 2009, will attempt to conclude a new framework for ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has dubbed 2009 “the year of climate change” as the planet faces interrelated challenges such as global warming, rocketing energy prices and dwindling natural resources.
Renewable energy can address many of these challenges by securing supplies, and fostering economic growth and employment in an affordable and sustainable way.
Still, IRENA’s mission faces a long list of obstacles, including lack of awareness among policy-makers, technical barriers, high import tariffs, lengthy permit procedures and insecure financing.
In a business as-usual scenario in which demand for fossil fuels continues at its present rate, greenhouse gas emissions could rise up to 60 percent in the next two decades, driving temperatures five degrees C. higher or more.
The economic losses due to climate change could equal 20 percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Researchers have shown that renewable energy is already competitive and will be even more so in coming years. A recent Greenpeace report titled “Energy [R]Evolution” offers a blueprint for how countries can halve global CO2 emissions by 2050, using existing technology and without sacrificing affordable prices and economic growth.
“Renewable energy can and will make it,” said Teske.
Renewable energies also open new paths for development: they can be up and running more quickly than traditional power stations, for example. They enable countries to better provide access in rural areas, and they are more flexible to meet demand.
According to the IEA, while the world population is projected to reach nine billion by 2050, the world’s energy needs will increase some 50 percent by 2030. Today, a third of the world – 2.4 billion people – lacks access to reliable power.
In 2006, renewable energy contributed some 18 percent to total energy consumption and created 2.4 million jobs. Last year, 250 billion dollars was invested in renewable energies. IPS