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Renewables to Overtake Coal as World's Largest Power Source, Says IEA

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Renewables to Overtake Coal as World's Largest Power Source, Says IEA

The International Energy Agency's (IEA) latest report found that "in advance of the critical COP21 climate summit in Paris, there's a clear sign that an energy transition is underway." The World Energy Outlook 2015 report, published today, found that "renewables contributed almost half of the world's new power generation capacity in 2014 and have already become the second-largest source of electricity (after coal)."

More than 150 countries have submitted climate pledges ahead of the Paris climate talks, and they are "rich in commitments on renewables and energy efficiency," says the IEA. The report also found renewables are set to become "the leading source of new energy supply from now to 2040." And renewables will overtake coal as the largest source of electricity generation by the 2030s.

The IEA projects “turbulent times” ahead for coal: “Coal has increased its share of the global energy mix from 23 percent in 2000 to 29 percent today, but the momentum behind coal’s surge is ebbing away and the fuel faces a reversal of fortune.” China's coal use will "plateau at close to today's levels," says the IEA, but India's energy demand will grow to 2.5 times its current rate.

It remains to be seen whether India will pursue the coal-heavy track that China followed. Coal demand is set to triple in India and Southeast Asia by 2040, reports the Guardian. At the same time, India is one of many countries aiming to become a so-called "solar superpower," making a huge commitment to renewables at its first big renewables trade convention earlier this year. And India lays claim to the world's first airport powered entirely by solar energy.

"Renewables-based generation reaches 50 percent in the EU [European Union] by 2040, around 30 percent in China and Japan, and above 25 percent in the United States and India," according to IEA estimates.

The rapid growth in renewable energy will help emissions to slow "dramatically," says the IEA, but the current emissions trajectory shows we are still heading for 2.7 degrees Celsius warming by 2100.

The IEA warns that a "major course correction" is still required to keep warming below the two degrees Celsius target. "As the largest source of global greenhouse-gas emissions, the energy sector must be at the heart of global action to tackle climate change," said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.

"World leaders meeting in Paris must set a clear direction for the accelerated transformation of the global energy sector," she added. "The IEA stands ready to support the implementation of an agreement reached in Paris with all of the instruments at our disposal, to track progress, promote better policies and support the technology innovation that can fulfill the world's hopes for a safe and sustainable energy future."

Yesterday, two reports found the Earth's climate has passed two new milestones. The World Meteorological Organization's report found that greenhouse gas concentrations hit yet another new record in 2014. Globally averaged CO2 levels above 400 parts per million will soon be "a permanent reality,” the WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said.

Meanwhile, the UK's Met Office report found that global warming is on track to exceed one degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of the year.

But several groups are outlining how we can rapidly transition to a low-carbon future by expediting the deployment of renewable energy worldwide. Just yesterday, NextGen Climate America released a new report showing that the transition to a clean energy economy will drive economic growth for decades, create well-paying jobs and increase household incomes. And in September, Greenpeace outlined a path for the world to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

“The impossible is becoming possible. The global breakthrough of renewable energy has happened much faster than anticipated," said Emily Rochon, global energy strategist at Greenpeace International.

“The IEA is catching up on renewable energy trends, but it is still failing to see the full potential of change," said Rochon. "We believe that with the right level of policy support, the world can deliver 100 percent renewable energy for all by 2050.”

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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