Renewable Energy: A Five Year Global Outlook

Climate change mitigation strategies are at the forefront of discussions regarding how the global population and various governments can achieve ambitious greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction commitments. The Paris Accord’s 2015 stated goal of limiting global warming is below 2°C, but with a target of 1.5°C, above preindustrial levels.1

By Foster Voelker II, Director of Engineering – Williams Valve

Climate Change Mitigation Goals

According to the United Nations, “More than 70 countries, including the biggest polluters – China, the United States, and the European Union – have set a net-zero target, covering about 76% of global emissions. More than 3,000 businesses and financial institutions are working with the Science-Based Targets Initiative to reduce their emissions in line with climate science. And more than 1,000 cities, over 1,000 educational institutions, and over 400 financial institutions have joined the Race to Zero, pledging to take rigorous, immediate action to halve global emissions by 2030.”2 An ambitious endeavor of such magnitude raises the question, how is such a goal accomplished? The answer to this question is multifaceted requiring significant innovation and is the cutting edge of research and development across many industries.

Power generation utilizing fossil fuels is one obvious focus. Based on data from the U.S Energy Information Administration, “In 2021, fossil fuel combustion (burning) for energy accounted for 73% of total U.S. GHG emissions and for 92% of total U.S. anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. CO2 emissions from other anthropogenic sources and activities were about 6% of total GHG emissions and 8% of total CO2 emissions.”3 If the global mitigation goals are to be accomplished, a global transition to renewable energy (RE) production sources is needed.

Renewable energy encompasses energy derived from resources naturally replenished on a human timescale, rendering them virtually inexhaustible. In contrast to fossil fuels, which contribute to environmental degradation and take millions of years to form, renewable energy sources offer sustainability with reduced environmental impacts. Noteworthy examples of renewable energy sources include solar energy, wind energy, hydropower, bioenergy, and geothermal energy.

Figure 1: Fossil fuel usage for different sectors in U.S. (2020).

Energy Production Today

Irrespective of these lofty goals, most countries today still depend heavily on fossil fuels for power generation. Figure 1 illustrates the comprehensive utilization of fossil fuels across various sectors in the United States in the year 2020. During that year, the total consumption of fossil fuels in the United States amounted to 21,365 terawatt-hours (TWh). Notably, petroleum was the most substantial contributor, accounting for 44% of the total, equivalent to 9400.6 TWh. Natural gas followed closely behind, contributing 9187 TWh, constituting 43% of the total. Coal, on the other hand, represented the smallest share, with power generation utilizing 2777 TWh.4

While the adoption of renewable energy for power generation has gained wider acceptance in recent years, the rate of adoption is nowhere close to the amount needed to achieve the mitigation commitments. The energy transition faces significant challenges. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) 2023 World Energy Transitions Outlook report, achieving the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C, as per the Paris Agreement, requires a drastic reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 37 gigatonnes from 2022 levels, with net-zero emissions in the energy sector by 2050. However, current progress falls short of this target, resulting in a projected emissions gap of 16 Gt in 2050. Existing climate pledges, including Nationally Determined Contributions and net-zero targets, if fully implemented, could reduce CO2 emissions by 6% by 2030 and 56% by 2050, compared to 2022 levels.

Figure 2: Upward revisions to renewable capacity expansion forecasts from Renewables 2021 to Renewables 2022.

Nevertheless, these commitments are yet to be translated into detailed national strategies and plans, necessitating urgent comprehensive action to accelerate the transition. Annual deployment of around 1,000 GW of renewable power is required to align with the 1.5°C pathway. The gap between achieved progress and required measures continues to widen, necessitating accelerated efforts across various energy sectors and technologies, including deeper electrification, direct renewable use, energy efficiency, and infrastructure additions. Delays in this transition pose challenges in meeting emission reduction targets and increase future investment needs and the costs of climate change effects.5

Energy Security Drives Investment

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), investment in renewable energy production will significantly increase in the coming years driven by energy security concerns in addition to climate change.

Per the IEA, “The first truly global energy crisis, triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has sparked unprecedented momentum for renewables. Fossil fuel supply disruptions have underlined the energy security benefits of domestically generated renewable electricity, leading many countries to strengthen policies supporting renewables. Meanwhile, higher fossil fuel prices worldwide have improved the competitiveness of solar PV and wind generation against other fuels. Renewable capacity expansion in the next five years will be much faster than what was expected just a year ago. Over 2022-2027, renewables are seen growing by almost 2400 GW in our main forecast, equal to the entire installed power capacity of China today. That is an 85% acceleration from the previous five years, and almost 30% higher than what was forecast in last year’s report, making it our largest ever upward revision.”

Figure 3: Comparison of renewable capacity growth forecasts 2010-2027.

“Renewables are set to account for over 90% of global electricity capacity expansion over the forecast period. The upward revision is mainly driven by China, the European Union, the United States, and India, which are all implementing existing policies and regulatory and market reforms, while also introducing new ones more quickly than expected in reaction to the energy crisis. China’s 14th Five-Year Plan and market reforms, the REPowerEU plan and the US Inflation Reduction Act are the main drivers of the revised forecasts.”6

The IEA acknowledges that variables impacting renewable energy implementation forecasts are ever-changing. While forecasts in advanced economies are based on ambitious targets and policy incentives, challenges persist, particularly concerning permitting and the expansion of grid infrastructure. In emerging economies, barriers to the faster expansion of renewable energy include policy and regulatory uncertainties, alongside implementation challenges. Developing countries face hindrances such as weak grid infrastructure and limited access to affordable financing, hampering the swift commissioning of multiple projects. However, how governments respond to these challenges can drastically impact outcomes.

Figure 3 provides a comparison of renewable capacity growth forecasts, as assessed by the IEA. On a global scale, a 60% increase in the pace of renewable capacity expansion over the forecast period (2022-2027) is required to align with the IEA Net Zero by 2050 Scenario. However, in the accelerated case, where these challenges are addressed through policies and existing plans are implemented more swiftly, the gap for the required growth in renewable electricity to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 is narrowed in the next five years.6

Figure 4: Tracking progress of key energy system components to achieve the 1.5°C Scenario.


It is worth noting that energy security concerns and high prices have driven investment across the energy sector, even in fossil fuels. Despite recording record additions in renewable power capacity, 2022 also witnessed unprecedented levels of fossil fuel subsidies. While global investments in energy transition technologies reached a record high of USD $1.3 trillion, fossil fuel capital investments were nearly double those of renewable energy.5 Considering the continued investments in fossil fuels, the consolidation of most investment in renewables in a few countries, and the fact that the projected forecast based on confirmed projects falls short, significant increases are needed to achieve the IPCC-defined emissions reduction levels.

According to IRENA, “energy transition indicators (Figure 4) show significant acceleration is needed across energy sectors and technologies, from deeper end-use electrification of transport and heat to direct renewable use, energy efficiency, and infrastructure additions. Delays only add to the already considerable challenge of meeting IPCC-defined emission reduction levels in 2030 and 2050 for a 1.5°C trajectory (IPCC, 2022a). This lack of progress will also increase future investment needs and the costs of worsening climate change effects.”5 While the capital investments and government commitments to mitigating climate impacts will continue, the challenges of real-world implementation and growing geopolitical volatility are likely to persist, bringing into question whether the goals of the Paris Accord can be achieved. Ultimately, time will tell.


  5. IRENA (2023), World Energy Transitions Outlook 2023: 1.5°C Pathway, Volume 1, International Renewable Energy Agency, Abu Dhabi.
  6. IEA (2022), Renewables 2022, IEA, Paris, License: CC BY 4.0
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Foster Voelker II attended the University of Houston, receiving a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After graduation, Foster Voelker began his career as a valve engineer for a large commodity valve manufacturer. He is the Director of Engineering for William E. Williams Valve Corporation.
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