Role of renewables in the climate debate


The rapid growth of renewable energy markets throughout the world over the past decade has resulted in significant investment volumes, in the creation of jobs, as well as in a large reduction of renewable energy cost due to economies of scale. As a result, new markets for renewable energy technologies in developing countries, where there is strong need for new generation capacities and where energy demand is increasing, have opened. Moreover, the use of renewables for power and heat generation has led to significant decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Germany was one of the “first mover countries” that developed and implemented renewable power generation, especially in onshore wind and solar photovoltaic. Between 2000 and 2013, the German Ministry for Environment undertook a detailed and unique effort to document the effects of the implementation of renewable energy sources. Their efforts serve as a valuable reference for other countries on how renewables can contribute to GHG emission mitigation efforts, while increasing energy access for all.

There are five notable key benefits of the German “Energiewende”, the German word for Energy Transition.

Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions

Specific Emission Reduction from Renewable Energy Sources in GermanyThe increased market for renewable energy deployment has reduced GHG emissions, as well as dust emissions throughout Germany. Renewables have replaced 710 g/KWh of CO2 equivalent in power generation. In the heating sector, 271 g/kWh of CO2 equivalent was displaced, as was 154 g/kWh of CO2 equivalent in the fuels sector.

Overall, the GHG emission reductions in Germany by the end of 2012 added up to 148 million tons. The biomass sector offered the largest percentage share of CO2 off-set, reducing 40 per cent of 148 million tons CO2 equivalent. The wind and solar PV sectors each saved an equivalent of 28 per cent and 16 per cent of GHG emissions respectively. Hydropower, biofuels, solar thermal and geothermal heating collectively saved 17 per cent.

Increase in fossil fuel savings

Using renewable energy sources for power generation, heat supply or as a transport fuel reduces fossil fuel demand and — in an energy resource-poor country like Germany — decreases imports of fossil fuels. In 2012 alone, over 40 million tons of coal, 12 billion cubic metres of gas and 8 million litres of oil, diesel and gasoline were saved.

Decrease fossil fuel import costs

Germany imports most of its oil, gas and coal. With the increased penetration of renewable energy the overall cost for imported fossil fuels decreased steadily over the past decade. In 2011, avoided fossil fuel imports totalled EUR 6.6 billion, with the greatest savings in the power sector. By 2012, the fossil fuel cost savings were just over EUR 10 billion, with the heating sector surpassing the power sector by EUR 1 billon.

Cost of renewable energy

Development of Solar Photovoltaic Module Prices, 1980-2013Germany’s pioneering role in the development and deployment of renewable energy technologies led to a global drop in costs. Cost for renewable energy technologies – onshore wind, solar collectors, bioenergy – decreased significantly. Solar photovoltaic module prices decreased by one order of magnitude; prices in 1980 were an average of US$30/Wpeak dropping 97 per cent to US$0.90/Wpeak in 2013.

Increase in investments in new technologies

Increased investment in new renewables translates into new jobs in the renewable energy industry. According to the German government, the overall investment in renewable energy technologies in 2012 was 19.5 billion Euros. REN21’s The First Decade: 2004-2014 notes that globally renewable energy jobs doubled over the last decade, growing from about 3 million in 2004 to approximately 6.5 million at the start of 2014.

While the current energy mix varies from country to country, Germany’s efforts – as summarised above – clearly demonstrate that renewables should play a central role in any climate change mitigation strategy. Renewables also contribute directly to adaptation efforts. The decentralised nature of renewables allows for energy resource diversification and flexibility in planning. Renewable energy technologies also provide an excellent opportunity as a way of complementing existing energy systems so that the overall energy system is adaptive to unanticipated climate impacts.


REN21 is an international, multi-stakeholder network that works to promote the rapid uptake of renewables. Its annually produced flagship report, Renewables Global Status Report is the most frequently referenced report on renewable energy market, industry, and policy trends.