China, developing countries, lead in renewable and solar energy investment

Installation of solar photovoltaic panels on the roofs of the Hongqiao Passenger Rail Terminal in Shanghai, China. Photo by: Jiri Rezac / The Climate Group / CC BY-NC-SA

NEW YORK — Developing countries, with China at the forefront of the group, are leading in global investment in renewable power generation, according to a new report on global trends in renewable energy investment released Thursday.

China now holds more than half of the world’s solar energy capacity, following a 58 percent increase last year of $86.5 billion in investment, and an additional 53 gigawatts — more than half the global total. Overall, China increased its investments in all renewables by 31 percent from 2016, marking a record $126.6 billion in investments.

This follows a broader trend of a surge in solar power, which made up 57 percent of last year’s total for all renewables, according to the findings released by United Nations Environment Programme, the Frankfurt School - UNEP Collaborating Centre, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Global solar energy investment last year jumped 18 percent to reach $160.8 billion in investment in 2017. That’s compared to the $103 billion invested in coal and gas generation capacity.

“The extraordinary surge in solar investment shows how the global energy map is changing and, more importantly, what the economic benefits are of such a shift,” Erik Solheim, the executive director of UNEP, said in a statement. “Investments in renewables bring more people into the economy, they deliver more jobs, better quality jobs, and better paid jobs. Clean energy also means less pollution, which means healthier, happier development.”

Overall, global investments in renewable energy increased 2 percent from 2016 to 2017, reaching $279.8 billion.

The record year for renewable power and capacity is key “in the global fight against climate change,” Françoise d’Estais, the head of energy and finance at UNEP, told reporters. A accelerated shift to clean energy could also help make good on the Paris Agreement on climate change, and countries’ pledges to limit a global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels this century.

Developing economies increased their renewable energy investments by 20 percent last year, committing $177 billion to renewables. Developed countries saw a drop of 19 percent, meanwhile, and invested $103 billion. The losses were particularly sharp in Europe, which had a 36 percent decline. This marks a continued upward green energy investment trend for developing countries, which first surpassed developed nations in their investment in 2015.

In total, China, Brazil, and India accounted for just over half of this investment in renewables, excluding large hydro investment.

China’s lead in renewable — and solar — energy was the “big story” from this report, said Christine Grüning, a policy expert at the Frankfurt School who helped develop the report. There are concerns, though, about the deficit China has accumulated by funding this investment, and what this could mean for future years.

Coal and oil still make up the majority of the world’s energy sources, but as renewable forms of energy become more cost effective, they are projected to become a more important source of energy through the midcentury, according to the International Energy Agency. 

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.