How much did the world invest in clean energy last year?

A new report backed by the UN shows that 2015 had the highest global investment in renewable energy generation ever, but oil, gas, and coal are set to remain a major part of the world's energy infrastructure for years.

David Gray/Reuters/File
Wind turbines at the Infigen Energy wind farm can be seen on the hills surrounding Lake George, located on the outskirts of the Australian capital city of Canberra in 2014.

Renewable energy investments made in 2015 contributed more to global energy generation capacity than all other sources combined, according to a United Nations-backed report on global renewables investment released this week.

The report, released by the Frankfurt School - UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Centre and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), also found that energy generation based on coal and gas saw less than half the investment as renewable generation sources, a first for green energy and a sign of that sector’s growing adoption around the world.

Global investment in renewables capacity hit a new record in 2015, far outpacing that in fossil fuel generating capacity despite falling oil, gas and coal prices,” said Michael Liebreich, chairman of the BNEF Advisory Board, in a UN release.

The UN report found that $286 billion was invested globally in renewable energy in 2015, outpacing every year since 2004 and bringing the world’s 12-year green investment total to roughly $2.3 trillion.

“Renewables are becoming ever more central to our low-carbon lifestyles, and the record-setting investments in 2015 are further proof of this trend,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said in the release.

The report’s data on renewable investments included all spending on worldwide energy generation in 2015, as well as research and development into clean energy. The report classified renewable investments as those involving “wind, solar, biomass and waste-to-energy, biofuels, geothermal, marine and small hydro” development, while excluding larger hydroelectric generating projects totaling more than 50 megawatts.

The report only analyzed power and fuel development, excluding advances made in smart technologies.

Of all global generating capacity added in 2015, renewable sources accounted for 54 percent globally with 134 gigawatts (GW) of added power, far outpacing the 106 GW of renewable generating capacity added in 2014.

The majority of that 134 GW came from expansions in the solar and wind fields, which together accounted for 118 GW of new capacity.

One of the most striking findings in the report was the location of new renewable energy sources added last year. Renewable investments in “developing and emerging economy nations” outpaced those in more developed countries for the first time ever in 2015, totaling around $156 billion.

“Access to clean, modern energy is of enormous value for all societies, but especially so in regions where reliable energy can offer profound improvements in quality of life, economic development and environmental sustainability,” Mr. Steiner said. “Continued and increased investment in renewables is not only good for people and planet, but will be a key element in achieving international targets on climate change and sustainable development.”

While new investments are progressing at an all-time high, renewables still only make up around one-sixth of the world’s energy capacity, and only generated around one-tenth of the world’s electricity in 2015. Those numbers are up year-over-year, but energy commitments made at various recent climate summits require even less carbon-based generation than is currently in place. And the current system of generation continues to emit greenhouse gasses, adding to the atmosphere's carbon dioxide content without much relief even with the recent drops in oil, coal, and gas pricing.

“Despite the ambitious signals from COP 21 in Paris and the growing capacity of new installed renewable energy, there is still a long way to go,” Frankfurt School Professor Udo Steffens said. “Coal-fired power stations and other conventional power plants have long lifetimes. Without further policy interventions, climate altering emissions of carbon dioxide will increase for at least another decade.”

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