Renewable energy is crucial to tackling the climate emergency. To break the world's reliance on finite and polluting fossil fuels, it is vital that nations around the globe work towards a more sustainable future. The transition to a zero-carbon future will involve a multi-pronged approach. Impressively, there are top renewable energy countries already seeing positive results.
Many countries have set ambitious targets for the use of renewable energy, and the market share of renewable energy continues to rise. Yet, globally, the energy transition is slow. The most recent year-on-year increase of the global average score on the WEF Energy Transition Index was the lowest of the last five years.
This shows us the scale of the problem, and what more we can still do. Experts predict that global energy demand will increase by another 25% by 20402. Meeting that demand through renewable power generation is crucial.
Around half of the current total global carbon emissions are a result of electricity and heat production. A decarbonized grid in the near future is more than just desirable – it is essential to our planet’s survival. Renewables provided more than 26% of global electricity generation in 2018, and that figure is steadily rising.
But there is a long way to go if we are to avoid worsening climate catastrophe in the coming years. We have to do a lot more and do it faster. Into the near future, we must completely overhaul our energy systems, invest, legislate and innovate.
We should make sure we eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels and take full advantage of renewable, green sources. To power, heat, and cool our homes and businesses, to transport people and goods, and to fuel industry in all its forms. The power is abundant – solar energy, wind, geothermal, hydro, and more. We just have to harness that energy and put it to good use.
As in most issues, some countries and jurisdictions are further along the curve than others when it comes to renewable energy. We must continue to hold nations to account, and make sure that we know where we are going wrong, and where we are doing well when it comes to this sector. Here are some of the countries leading the pack when it comes to this essential green energy transition.
Iceland leads the world in renewable energy. The country's electricity production is 100% renewable and has been for some years. Now, around 85% of the total primary energy supply in Iceland comes from domestically produced renewable energy sources. This is the highest share of renewable energy in any total national energy budget.
Iceland heats around 85% of its homes with geothermal energy and through hydropower and wind power. Iceland is the world's largest green energy producer per capita and the largest electricity producer per capita too.
Scotland is also extremely close to meeting 100% of its electricity means through renewable power generation and easily on track to do so this year. Onshore wind accounts for the largest percentage of renewable energy generation in Scotland, producing 70% of installed capacity. Offshore wind, hydropower and solar are Scotland’s other major renewable power sources.
The focus is now on decarbonising the heat and transport sectors. The government has declared a climate emergency and committed to reaching net-zero total emissions by 2045 – five years ahead of the rest of the UK and, crucially, without carbon offset purchases. The Scottish Government has also adopted an ambitious new target to reduce emissions by 75% by 2030 – this is the toughest statutory target of any country in the world for this date.
Costa Rica is another country that is close to getting 100% of its electricity from renewables. In 2019, 99.62% of the country's electricity came from renewable sources – largely through hydropower but also electricity from wind, geothermal energy and a small proportion from solar. With a population of fewer than 5 million, Costa Rica will find it easier to meet its energy targets than larger countries. But the country is on track for its goal of becoming 100% carbon neutral this year.
Currently, 97% of Norway's electricity comes from hydropower. The government is pushing its population towards a 100% renewables goal through wind farms and solar power. An impressive number of startups and innovators in the country have helped to speed up the shift towards renewables.
While Norway is far from detached in the world's petro-chemical reliance – we can link half of its total exports to oil and gas – Norway is leading the way with the transition to electric vehicles. More than 200,000 pure electric plug-in vehicles are now on the road and the country has ambitious goals to make all newly registered cars zero-emission within the next five years.
More than half of all energy used in Sweden comes from renewable sources, and the country has set ambitious targets for the coming years. For the country's electricity, the target is 100% renewable energy production by 2040. The power largely comes from hydropower, with bioenergy for heating.
Norway and Sweden have a joint electricity market, with a green energy certification scheme that applies to both countries. Sweden is one of the EU countries contributing most significantly to the decarbonisation and renewable energy targets of the block.
Amongst developing nations, several markets for clean energy policy and practice are also emerging. While everything is up in the air due to the current global health crisis, it is increasingly crucial that countries continue to make progress, and speed up progress, towards a renewable energy future.
China is the world's leading country in terms of electrical production from renewable energy sources, with more than double the generation of the United States. By the end of 2019, the country had 800 GW of renewable power, mostly from hydroelectric and wind power.
China has installed more hydro, solar and wind power generation than any other nation in the world, though its huge energy requirements mean that, although market share is increasing, the share of renewables in the mix is still only around 30% of the country's total power generation comes from non-fossil fuel sources (including nuclear).
In the coming 2021-25 period, wind and photovoltaic power across China should fully achieve power grid parity. This is the tipping point at which their generation costs are the same or less as electricity from the power grid and so could lead to a rapid expansion of the sector.
The Indian government has set ambitious renewable energy targets and aims for 175 GW by 2022. The power comes from solar, wind, and other sources. Renewables, excluding large hydro, account for over 22% of India's total energy capacity and this figure continues to rise as lower-cost renewables take up a larger share of the market.
Chile is another developing nation that green energy investors view as attractive. The government's targets include a goal of generating 20% of power for utilities from renewables by 2025, 60% by 2035, and 70% by 2050. Wind and solar continue to see investment and currently account for over 15% of installed capacity.
Brazil has not been lauded for its environmental practices in recent years. Hydropower has long dominated the power supply, but other renewable generation has increased and continues to attract investment. While deforestation and other environmental atrocities continue to hit the headlines, there is some hope that investment in renewables that the country is attracting could speed the energy transition in the country1.
Kenya is the largest producer of geothermal energy in Africa. Geothermal energy accounts for almost 20% of Kenya's total energy generation. Total renewable energy capacity in the country is at 70%, mostly from hydropower, though in 2019 the country opened the largest wind power plant in Africa, and has an ambitious goal to reach 100% green energy for its national power grid this year.
Despite progress in renewables uptake, energy efficiency, and energy access, the world is not on track to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement. In 2018, only 47 countries had targets for renewable heating and cooling. Renewable energy penetration in the transport sector remains low.
While a growing number of countries now have more than 20% variable renewables in their electricity mixes, and some countries have gone much further, there is still a long way to go in decarbonizing electrical grids. Furthermore, even bigger challenges are on the horizon, as we tackle the global decarbonization of the industrial sector.
Every nation, and every individual, must take their lead from the top countries using renewable energy. We must come together to tackle the crises we all face. And even those nations leading the charge must do more, and do it faster if we are to come through the crises and transition to a sustainable future for all.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.