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World's Second Largest Source of Electricity Is Now Renewables

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World's Second Largest Source of Electricity Is Now Renewables

It probably surprises nobody to learn that coal produces more of the world’s electricity than any other fuel. But it may provide food for thought to realize that the second most widely-used fuels for power generation are now renewables.

The construction of a vast solar power plant in Germany. Photo credit: Bilfinger SE / Flickr

Electricity generation from renewable sources has overtaken natural gas to become the second largest source of electricity worldwide, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has announced.

In Europe, the main renewables used to generate electricity are wind and solar power. Since 1990, global solar photovoltaic power has been increasing at an average growth rate of 44.6 percent a year and wind at 27.1 percent.

The IEA reports that electricity production last year in the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) fell slightly to 10,712 TWh (terawatt hours)—a decrease of 0.8 percent (86 TWh) compared with 2013. To put that in context, 1 TWh is 1 billion kilowatt hours and each KWh takes about 0.36 kilograms of coal to generate.

Partially Offset

This decline, the agency says, was driven by lower fossil fuel and hydro production, which were only partially offset by increases in non-hydro renewables. These grew by 8.5 percent and nuclear energy by 0.9 percent.

In 2014, solar photovoltaic power overtook solid biofuels—used in power plants that burn biomass—to become the second-largest source of non-hydro renewable electricity in OECD countries of Europe, with a share of 17.3 percent.

The IEA says overall growth in electricity generation continues to be driven by non-OECD countries. Its latest statistics, which show world electricity generation increasing by 2.9 percent between 2012 and 2013, reveal two distinct trends.

Electricity generation is leveling off within the OECD, while it is rising strongly in the rest of the world. In 2011, non-OECD countries for the first time produced more electricity than members of the OECD.

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Other milestones were reached in 2013, when global non-hydro renewable electricity exceeded oil-fired generation for the first time and renewable electricity overtook natural gas to become the world’s second largest source of electricity, producing 22 percent of the total.

In the same year, electricity generated by coal reached its highest level yet at 9,613 TWh, representing 41.1 percent of global electricity production. The growth in coal generation was driven by non-OECD countries.

Globally, more renewable energy is consumed in the residential, commercial and public services sectors than elsewhere, but there are two distinct patterns of use.

In non-OECD countries, only 22.3 percent of renewables are used for electricity and heat production and 60.7 percent in homes, commercial and public sectors. In OECD countries, more than half of the renewable primary energy supply (58.5 percent) is used for electricity and heat.

Huge Challenge

The IEA’s data will encourage renewable energy’s supporters, but they also show how much the world continues to rely on fossil fuels for its electricity.

In 1971, coal produced about 2 TWh of global electrical power, but that figure is now almost five times higher. Replacing that much generation with clean fuels will be a huge challenge, despite the very rapidly accelerating growth of renewables.

Fatih Birol, the IEA’s director, has said that, without clear direction from the UN climate summit to be held in Paris in December, "the world is set for warming well beyond the 2°C goal,"—the internationally-agreed limit for global temperature rise that is intended to prevent climate change reaching dangerous levels.

The IEA World Energy Outlook 2014 said that, by 2040, the world’s energy supply mix is likely to divide into four almost-equal parts: oil, gas, coal and low-carbon sources.

This scenario, it said, "puts the world on a path consistent with a long-term global average temperature increase of 3.6°C."

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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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