Workers install solar panels on a building on the Champs Elysees in Paris on Nov. 29, 2015. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

LE BOURGET, France — Negotiators here Wednesday released a new draft climate agreement that, in one of its most closely watched sections, proposes a variety of options for the world’s long-term plans to cut carbon emissions.

The two major options are a “peaking of global greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible”  with the goal of “achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions” at some point later in the century; or “long-term global low emissions … over the course of this century,” potentially leading to “climate neutrality” or “decarbonization” in the energy and other sectors.

These might sound pretty similar, but in fact, negotiators are parsing every word for its implications for the future of energy, transportation, the world’s forests (which store much “net” carbon), and much else. Indeed, when finalized, this part of the text is expected to give an unmistakable hint to those in the energy and transportation industries about how to plan their future businesses.

“What we’re doing is sending the marketplace an extraordinary signal — that those 186 countries are really committed — and that helps the private [sector] to move capital into that knowing there’s a future that is committed to this sustainable path,” said U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry here Wednesday.

But another announcement Wednesday — not made in Paris but highly relevant to the proceedings here — shows that regardless of the signals sent by a final agreement, clean energy is already growing quite steadily.

U.S. solar installations are expected to hit a new yearly high in 2015, according to a newly released projection from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association. The two entities found that the country is likely to install over 3 gigawatts (a gigawatt is a billion watts) of solar capacity in the fourth quarter of 2015 alone, leading to more than 7 gigawatts installed in 2015 overall.

The United States installed 6.2 gigawatts of solar capacity in 2014, says GTM Research’s marketing manager Mike Munsell. But this year, the group is “anticipating 7.4 gigawatts,” Munsell said.

And still it is only beginning. As a key tax credit expires by the end of 2016, a vast volume of solar projects are expected to be completed before the deadline. How many? 15.4 gigawatts’ worth, GTM Research projects, meaning that by the end of that year, the United States would have 41 total gigawatts of solar energy capacity installed.

Where’s it all coming from? In the third quarter of 2015, two key solar markets were roughly on par — utility scale installations represented 42 percent of all installations, while residential or rooftop installations accounted for 41 percent. The latter type of solar installation has seen particularly rapid growth in the last few years:


U.S solar PV installations, 2010-Q3 2015. Source: GTM Research/SEIA’s U.S. Solar Market Insight

The news underscores a recurrent theme of the Paris climate talks — that even as nations haggle to determine precisely how further emissions reductions will be managed through a global process, there is one area where progress seems quite steady, continually impressive, and to be thriving even without a Paris agreement yet in place: the growth of clean energy.

In arguably the biggest news of all out of this event, African leaders last week announced an amazing 300 gigawatts of planned clean energy installations by 2030 on the continent. India has also recently announced major solar plans of installing 100 gigawatts of capacity by 2022, and at a panel here Thursday, Junfeng Li, who directs the climate change center of the National Development and Reform Commission of China, said that his country is projecting  200 gigawatts of solar installed by 2020.

If you look at these numbers, well, it’s all starting to add up. Germany is currently at 38.5 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic, according to a recent analysis, and also growing. So are a number other countries. Clearly, then, we are heading into a world in which by 2020, hundreds of gigawatts of solar power alone will be installed across the globe.

Still, to put that in perspective, the United States as a whole in 2012 had 1,063 gigawatts of total installed electricity capacity. So there is still a very long way to go.

In his speech yesterday, Kerry extolled clean energy progress that has happened even in the absence of a global climate accord, noting that since the Copenhagen climate change convention in 2009, “the price of solar power has dropped by more than 80 percent. Installed capacity has increased by more than 500 percent.”

The latest announcement further bulwarks that news. However, what is far less clear is whether the rate of growth here is enough, on its own, to support scenarios in which the world manages to limit warming to minus-2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels. Solar (and wind) clearly advance every year, but they’re still up-and-comers. There remains a vastness of coal and other types of fossil fuel generation across the world. They’re still the incumbents.

That’s why signals from Paris are so important, and why a final agreement could lead to a bumping up of U.S. solar — and of global solar — still more than has already occurred.