Accelerating the clean-energy revolution

Around the world, more and more electricity is being generated by renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Equipment, appliances, and buildings are being designed to cut energy waste. Millions of workers are being trained, and new clean energy jobs are being created. Sales of electric vehicles are setting records. And we are seeing a positive shift in public support for prudent action to address climate change and pursue clean energy.

This progress has been facilitated in part by the Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM), a voluntary and collaborative forum of energy ministers from 23 governments with the distinctive goal of accelerating the world's clean-energy transition. Actions taken by these governments through the CEM's 13 initiatives have achieved significant results.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz
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U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz

Based on recommendations from the appliance efficiency initiative, for example, India became the first country in the world to set comprehensive performance standards for LED lights. Those standards are expected to save enough electricity to avoid the need for 90 coal-fired power plants — sparing the atmosphere 254 million tons of CO2. Likewise, through the energy access initiative, 2.7 million quality-assured off-grid solar lighting systems have been sold in Africa, extending health benefits to ten million people.

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The list goes on. Clean Energy Solutions Center's no-cost "Ask an Expert" service has provided policy assistance to more than 60 countries. A groundbreaking online global atlas is helping decision-makers assess renewable-energy potential in countries around the world. The Women in Clean Energy Initiative is advancing women's leadership and helping to harness all talent in driving the clean-energy revolution forward. In these areas and more, work taking place through CEM initiatives is not only transforming energy systems; it is also transforming lives.

As members of the CEM, we can each point to the progress made in South Korea and the United States to demonstrate how the Ministerial's collaborative process has helped us move faster and more effectively than we could have done alone. The United States is experiencing continued growth in renewable energy and more efficient use of energy. Over the past eight years, it has reduced its total CO2 emissions more than any other country, and President Barack Obama's Climate Action Plan commits to building on this progress.

South Korea has generated a paradigm shift in its efforts to ensure a stable energy supply by introducing ICT-based demand-management policies ranging from the distribution of high-efficiency devices to improved efficiency standards. In addition, the country has launched a national smart grid project and is ramping up investment in clean technologies such as solar, wind, energy storage, and carbon capture.

Our progress has not occurred in a vacuum. We have learned from each other and other countries engaged in the CEM, and we have applied those lessons in practical and common-sense ways to benefit our citizens and our economies.

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From these positive developments, one might conclude that the world is on the cusp of a clean-energy revolution. In fact, major challenges remain.

Renewable energy comprises only 18% of the global energy mix. Investment in clean energy has fallen over the last two years. The pace of electric and hybrid vehicle sales has slowed. Energy demand and coal use are still on the rise globally, along with carbon pollution.

At the same time, more than one billion people still have no access to electricity. And the risks from climate change grow more real and become more urgent with each passing day. As the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change illustrated so acutely, time is running out for avoiding the worst effects. The time to act — and the time for greater ambition — is now.

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While we can be proud of what we have accomplished through the CEM, much more can and must be done. The world may indeed be on the cusp of a clean-energy revolution, but progress to date has been incremental and evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

On May 12-13, ministers and representatives from CEM governments will meet for the fifth Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM5), this time in Seoul. South Korea will host this meeting under the theme of "Act Together, Think Creative," which frames the need for both increased collaboration and innovation to spur more ambitious action.

As our countries and others work toward a new international climate agreement in 2015, the upcoming meeting in Seoul, as well as CEM6 in Mexico a year from now, will be particularly important. Our efforts through the CEM this year and next provide an opportunity to demonstrate not only ideas about how governments can achieve emissions reductions, but also how we can work together to deliver high-impact results. Our challenge now is to demonstrate that we can deliver at the scale that our climate and energy challenges demand.

The transition to a world powered by clean energy has the potential not only to reduce carbon pollution and the risks of climate change, but also to create entrepreneurial opportunities and jobs, realize cost savings for business and individuals, enhance energy security, and improve access to energy worldwide. Bolder and more ambitious commitments made by each of our governments at CEM5 and CEM6 can help turn today's clean-energy evolution into tomorrow's clean-energy revolution.

Commentary by U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz and Korean Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy Yoon Sang-jick.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.