An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2012

National Policies to Promote Renewable Energy

Mohamed T. El-Ashry

The world is entering a new energy era marked by concerns over energy security, climate change, and access by the poor to modern energy services. Yet the current energy path is not compatible with sustainable development objectives. Global demand for energy will continue to grow; so will CO2 emissions. Achieving a low-carbon energy world will require an unprecedented technological transformation in the way energy is produced and used. That transformation has begun, as renewables capacity continues to grow, prices continue to fall, and shares of global energy from renewables continue to increase. Government policies are the main driver behind renewable energy’s meteoric growth. Still, the world is tapping only a small amount of the vast supply of renewable energy resources. There is broad consensus that the role of these resources should be expanded significantly in order to meaningfully address energy security, energy access, and climate change.

MOHAMED T. EL-ASHRY is a Senior Fellow at the UN Foundation and Chairman of REN21 (Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century). He serves as Facilitator of the Global Leadership for Climate Action, which he organized in 2007. Previously, he served as Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Global Environment Facility, Chief Environmental Adviser to the President and Director of the Environment Department at the World Bank, and Senior Vice President of the World Resources Institute. He is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The main driver of sustainable economic development is sustainable energy. Yet there is broad consensus that the current path of global energy development is not sustainable in economic, environmental, or social terms. Moving to a more sustainable development path is the central global challenge for energy policy. The world’s energy needs will be almost 60 percent higher in 2030 than they are now, and CO2 emissions will increase at about the same rate.1 In 2009, fossil fuels accounted for 81 percent of total global primary energy supply, which doubled between 1971 and 2009. Rising global demand for fossil fuels plays a key role in the continued growth of CO2 emissions. In fact, CO2 from energy production and use represents about 65 percent of global emissions. In 2009, the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) accounted for 33 percent of global energy use and 37 percent of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels; and energy consumption in these countries is expected to grow in coming years as a result of their strong economic performance.2 According to McKinsey & Company, more than 75 percent of the world’s energy infrastructure needed by 2030 has not yet been constructed, and most of it will be built in developing countries.

To meet this infrastructure goal in the context of heightened concern over energy security and climate change, greater global attention is being given to clean and renewable sources of energy. Recognizing “with a sense of urgency” that decisions taken now will be decisive for a transition toward a sustainable energy future, world leaders gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002 to call for a substantial increase in the global share of renewable energy.

.  .  .


  • 1Energy & Sustainable Development (Paris: International Energy Agency, 2007).
  • 2CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion (Paris: International Energy Agency, 2011).
To read this essay or subscribe to Dædalus, visit the Dædalus access page
Access now