Developing Countries Are Now Leading the World’s Clean Energy Transformation

Workers install solar panels on the roof of the Hongqiao Passenger Rail Terminal in Shanghai, China.

Workers install solar panels on the roof of the Hongqiao Passenger Rail Terminal in Shanghai, China. Jiri Rezac / The Climate Group

The majority of the world’s new zero-carbon power capacity was built in developing countries last year, with these nations installing 94 gigawatts of wind and solar and 20 gigawatts of nuclear and hydropower. In comparison, wealthier nations added just 63 gigawatts of zero-carbon energy over the same period, according to the energy research group BNEF.

“It’s been quite a turnaround,” Dario Traum, a senior associate at BNEF, said in a statement. “Just a few years ago, some argued that less-developed nations could not, or even should not, expand power generation with zero-carbon sources because these were too expensive. Today, these countries are leading the charge when it comes to deployment, investment, policy innovation, and cost reductions.”

The surge in zero-carbon capacity in developing nations has been driven primarily by growing electricity demand, clean energy policies, and the sharp drop in the cost of wind and solar technology. Public and private clean energy investment in emerging markets totaled $143 billion in 2017, according to BNEF’s Climatescope report, an annual assessment of clean energy in developing nations. Fifty-four developing countries saw investment in at least one utility-scale wind project, and 76 countries got financing for large-scale solar projects (1.5 megawatts and up). That’s an increase from 20 and 3 respectively in 2007.

The report also found that developing nations brought on line the lowest amount of new coal capacity since 2006, adding 48 gigawatts in 2017, less than half of their new zero-carbon capacity. But BNEF’s analysts warned that despite this trend, coal still plays a robust role in developing nations’ energy strategies. Currently, 193 gigawatts of new coal capacity are under construction in developing nations, according to Coalswarm — 86 percent of which is in China, India, Indonesia, and South Africa.