A range of solar panels

How Electricity Choices Help to Meet International Climate and Development Goals

Nov. 13, 2019
While accelerating the global switch to renewables and enhancing energy efficiency, we need to pay greater attention to resource efficiency and the reduction of resource waste in the process.

The international community has recognized that renewable energy is a key solution for a safer, healthier, and more prosperous world. While it is clear that we need to accelerate the global switch to renewables and enhance energy efficiency, we also need to pay greater attention to resource efficiency and the reduction of resource waste in the process. It is evident that energy production and use, as every economic activity, relies on natural resources. But did you know that our use of natural resources has tripled since 1970 and that resource extraction and processing is responsible for approximately half of the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as well as 90% of biodiversity loss?

Against this background, experts emphasize that we cannot reach the commitments made under the Paris Agreement and the targets agreed to by the world’s nations in the Sustainable Development Goals if business is not an integral part of the delivery mechanism. The business community, alongside governments, needs to take the opportunity to steer investments toward energy systems that meet the demands of an increasing population while reducing GHG emissions; water, air, and soil pollution; and habitat loss.1

In this era of climate change, growing pressure on scarce resources, and rising energy demand, the electricity sector plays a pivotal role in the switch to sustainable, low-carbon economies. While electricity production accounts for 25% of the GHG emissions attributable to human activity, the decarbonization of the sector may be achieved at a much faster pace than in the rest of the energy system.2 Global energy demand is expected to double by 2050. Therefore, the challenge is to make the right energy choices now, based on sustainability and life-cycle assessment criteria, which take into account the varying impacts on the environment and our resource base.

If the world is to achieve its target of keeping the global temperature increase to below 2°C, a radical shift to low-carbon electricity generation and energy technologies is essential. The seventh of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (“Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all”) calls for a substantial increase of renewable energy in the global energy mix and for a doubling of the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030. In 2018, investments in renewable energy were three times higher than the amount invested in new coal and gas-fired generators. New energy installations and energy conservation initiatives will require an estimated investment of US$2.5 trillion a year over the next 20 years. However, the choice now to invest in green energy and technology coupled with more efficient natural resource use could add US$2 trillion annually to the global economy by 2050. This means that the costs arising from ambitious climate action could be offset by a smarter use of resources.

According to the International Resource Panel, a group of eminent experts in natural resource management hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme, natural resource management and climate change are intrinsically linked, with a large part of global energy use and therefore GHG emissions, tied directly to the acquisition, processing, transport, conversion, use and disposal of resources.3 Comparing the mitigation potential of various low-carbon electricity generation technologies, including hydro, solar, geothermal, and wind, the panel’s findings highlight that a “whole system approach” is needed when considering energy choices and climate policies.

What does this mean for the energy sector? It has to better connect the dots between energy production, consumption, and their impacts on the environment, human health, and resources, in order to prevent unintended negative consequences such as toxic metal pollution, habitat destruction or resource depletion. Importantly, when compared with coal, electricity generated by hydro, wind, solar, and geothermal power can reduce GHG emissions by more than 90% and pollutants harmful to human health and ecosystems by 60% to 90%.4 Even though increased investment in infrastructure for low-carbon technologies will lead to a greater demand for iron, steel, cement, and copper, the associated environmental impacts are low compared with the impacts of fossil fuel-based power plants; the widespread deployment of low-carbon technologies would only require one year of current global iron production and two years of copper production to meet the world’s energy needs in 2050.

Shedding light on the strong link between the earth’s climate and biodiversity, and the way our economies extract, use, and dispose of natural resources, the panel put forward 10 key messages on Climate Change which are relevant for policymakers and businesses alike. In order to achieve significant savings in energy and emissions at each stage of the resource management chain (acquisition, processing, transport, conversion, use, and disposal), a main concern must be the “decoupling” of economic growth and human well-being from resource use and environmental degradation. This means that resource use needs to grow at a slower rate than the activity causing it or to decline while the economic activity continues to grow.

Meeting people’s needs within the means of our planet requires solutions that combine climate mitigation and carbon removal with biodiversity protection policies and resource efficiency. Much more needs to be done and we need to start now to do more with less, because if current trends continue, annual resource use will grow by 70%. This is why your decisions for cleaner electricity matter now. The decisions have an influence on which and how much materials will be used, and will determine the resulting amount of waste and emissions.

The decarbonization of the electricity sector and improvements in electricity efficiency are important steps forward, especially because the share of electricity production in the energy mix will rise. However, we can only meet international climate and development goals when renewable energy efficiency is coupled with resource efficiency, adding more value to resources. Therefore, the electricity choices you make need to be embedded into circular economy solutions and sustainable designs of cities in order to maintain the value of materials and resources in the economy for as long as possible, and to develop low-carbon, resource-efficient, and socially-just living spaces in a safer, healthier, and more prosperous world.

1 Green Energy Choices – Summary for Policy Makers (Foreword)



4 Green Energy Choices – Summary for Policy Makers, p. 28

About the Author

Janez Potočnik

Janez Potočnik is co-chair of the International Resource Panel.

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