5 October 2022
Energy is sustainable if it "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Most definitions of sustainable energy include considerations of environmental aspects such as greenhouse gas emissions and social and economic aspects such as energy poverty. Renewable energy sources such as wind, hydroelectric power, solar, and geothermal energy are generally far more sustainable than fossil fuel sources. However, some renewable energy projects, such as the clearing of forests to produce biofuels, can cause severe environmental damage. The role of non-renewable energy sources in sustainable energy has been controversial. Nuclear power is a low-carbon source whose historic mortality rates are comparable to wind and solar, but its sustainability has been debated because of concerns about radioactive waste, nuclear proliferation, and accidents. Switching from coal to natural gas has environmental benefits, including a lower climate impact, but may lead to a delay in switching to more sustainable options. Carbon capture and storage can be built into power plants to remove their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, but is expensive and has seldom been implemented.
Fossil fuels provide 85% of the world's energy consumption and the energy system is responsible for 76% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Around 790 million people in developing countries lack access to electricity and 2.6 billion rely on polluting fuels such as wood or charcoal to cook. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to levels consistent with the 2015 Paris Agreement will require a system-wide transformation of the way energy is produced, distributed, stored, and consumed. The burning of fossil fuels and biomass is a major contributor to air pollution, which causes an estimated 7 million deaths each year. Therefore, the transition to a low-carbon energy system would have strong co-benefits for human health. Pathways exist to provide universal access to electricity and clean cooking in ways that are compatible with climate goals, while bringing major health and economic benefits to developing countries.
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