The world is off track to meet global energy targets for 2030 set as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG7), but renewables' gains in the electricity sector and industrial energy efficiency are among the bright spots of progress, according to a study by five international agencies.

The Tracking SDG7: The Energy Progress Report was jointly presented at the Sustainable Energy for All Forum in Lisbon today by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), the World Bank, and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The report is based on official national-level data and measures global progress up to 2015 for renewable energy and energy efficiency, and up to 2016 for access to electricity and clean cooking.

“Falling costs, technological improvements and enabling frameworks are fuelling an unprecedented growth of renewable energy, which is expanding energy access, improving health outcomes, and helping to tackle climate change, while also creating jobs and powering sustainable economic growth,” said Irena director general Adnan Amin.

“At the same time, this tracking report is an important signal that we must be more ambitious in harnessing the power of renewable energy to meet sustainable development and climate goals, and take more deliberate action to achieve a sustainable energy future.”

The world according to the report in 2015 obtained 9.6% of its total final energy consumption from ‘modern’ renewable sources such as geothermal, hydro, solar or wind. If traditional biomass such as fuelwood and charcoal is included, final energy consumption from renewables reached 17.5% in that year.

Based on current policies, the modern renewable share is expected to reach just 15% by 2030 (or 21% if traditional biomass is included), falling short of the substantial increase demanded by the SDG7 target.

The report points out that rapidly falling costs have allowed solar and wind to compete with conventional power generation sources in many regions, driving the growth in the share of renewables in electricity to 22.8% in 2015.

But electricity accounted for only 20% of total final energy consumption that year, highlighting the need to accelerate progress in transport and heating.

Renewables' share in transport is rising quite rapidly, but from a very low base, amounting to only 2.8% in 2015.

The use of renewable energy for heating purposes has barely increased in recent years and stood at 24.8% in 2015, of which one third was from modern uses.

China, Brazil and UK stand out

While overall progress was insufficient, some countries stood out.

Since 2010, China’s progress in renewable energy alone accounted for nearly 30% of absolute growth in renewable energy consumption globally in 2015. Brazil was the only country among the top 20 largest energy consumers to substantially exceed the global average renewable share in all end uses: electricity, transport and heating. The UK’s share of renewable energy in total final energy consumption grew by 1% annually on average since 2010 – more than five times the global average.

“It is clear that the energy sector must be at the heart of any effort to lead the world on a more sustainable pathway,” said IEA executive director Fatih Birol.

“There is an urgent need for action on all technologies, especially on renewables and energy efficiency, which are key for delivering on three critical goals – energy access, climate mitigation and lower air pollution.”

Energy efficiency was one of the bright spots, especially in industry, where it rose at 2.7% per year since 2010.

Progress in the transport sector was more modest, however, especially in freight transportation, which is a particular challenge for high-income countries.

Access to electricity in general has increased, with Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania all increasing their electricity access rates by 3% or more annually from 2010-16, but if current trends continue, some 674 million people world-wide will still live without electricity in 2030, the report estimates.

Solar home systems and mini-grids have given tens of millions of people access to electricity for the first time, but these remain concentrated in about a dozen pioneering countries where the penetration of solar power can reach as much as 5-15% of the population.

Yet, three billion people, or more than 40% of the world’s population, still have no access to clean cooking fuels and technologies.

“It is unacceptable that in 2018, 3 billion people still breathe deadly smoke every day from cooking with polluting fuels and stoves. Every year, household air pollution kills around four million people from diseases including pneumonia, heart disease, stroke, lung disease and cancer,” said Maria Neira, director at the department of public health, environmental and social determinants of health at the World Health Organization (WHO).