If you only glance at clean energy investment in the past year, you’ll see a marked decline in most areas of the globe. But not all.

In the Pew Charitable Trust’s fourth annual report, Who’s Winning the Clean Energy Race? 2012 Edition, Pew and Bloomberg New Energy Finance found that while investment dropped from 2011 to 2012 in G20 countries, it was up by more than 50 percent in non-G20 countries.

And then there’s South Africa. It’s easy to see big gains when you’re starting from nearly zero, and that’s exactly what’s going on in the country. Clean energy investment was up 20,000 percent to about $5.5 billion for 2012 in South Africa, with $4.3 billion for solar and most of the rest going to wind energy.

South Africa’s clean energy program relies largely on reverse auctions that challenge the market to bid in the lowest possible price for projects, said Ethan Zindler, head of policy analysis at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The country is aiming to have 3.7 gigawatts of renewables by the end of 2016. South Africa’s investment catapulted it into the top ten from nearly last place.

The top dog, however, was clearly China.

top countries clean energy investment

In 2012, China took the lead with about $65 billion in investment out of $269 billion globally. “It’s not quite a spectacular wind year for China,” said Zindler, “but it still beats everyone else.”

China added 16 gigawatts of wind and more than 3 gigawatts of solar, with 2013 goals of 18 gigawatts and 10 gigawatts, respectively.

While China’s size and aggressive policies make it the leader in clean energy, it’s important to remember that China also leads as the world’s largest coal burner, accounting for nearly half of global coal consumption.

Investment was down in many of the other countries, but renewable project deployment has accelerated due to better financing models, falling prices and a flurry of activity in the lead-up to expiring support policies.

While China eclipses nearly every other country, Japan is also gaining momentum in clean energy after enacting a feed-in tariff. Zindler expects Japan to be second only to China for solar PV in 2013.

Even though 2012 was down, the overall trend is strong growth globally, said Phyllis Cuttino, director of Pew’s clean energy work. “In countries with strong policy, they’re successful in attracting investment,” she said. In the U.S., “we need more than a patchwork of state policies.”

One area where the U.S. led the G-20 was energy efficiency, which saw $2.5 billion in investment in 2012. With $200 million allocated in Obama’s proposed budget for efficiency programs and growing utility efficiency programs, this is one area where the U.S. has an opportunity to stay in the lead.