Sustainable Energy

Sustainable energy meets current needs without hindering future generations’ ability to meet theirs. It affects the environment, economy, and society, influencing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, energy poverty, and waste. Renewable sources like wind, hydro, solar, and geothermal are more sustainable than fossil fuels despite some environmental impacts.

Renewable vs. Non-renewable Energy

Non-renewable energy’s role in sustainability is debated. Nuclear power avoids carbon emissions but poses risks like radioactive waste and nuclear proliferation. Switching from coal to natural gas reduces environmental impact but may delay more sustainable solutions. Carbon capture and storage can reduce emissions but is costly and underutilised.

Global Energy Use and Impact

Fossil fuels provide 85% of global energy and cause 76% of greenhouse gas emissions. About 790 million people lack electricity, and 2.6 billion use polluting fuels for cooking, leading to 7 million deaths annually. Limiting global warming to 2°C requires a transformation in energy systems, with clean electricity offering significant climate, health, and economic benefits.

Climate Change Mitigation

To combat climate change, strategies include phasing out coal, conserving energy, increasing clean energy production, and electrifying transport and heating. Renewable energy requires grid upgrades and storage solutions. Hard-to-electrify processes might use low-emission hydrogen fuel. Achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, as proposed by the International Energy Agency, depends on developing new technologies for 35% of emission reductions.

Clean Energy Progress

Wind and solar provided 8.5% of global electricity in 2019, with costs continuing to fall. The IPCC estimates that 2.5% of global GDP investment in energy systems annually from 2016 to 2035 is needed to limit warming to 1.5°C. Governments can support clean energy through research funding, infrastructure development, and policies like carbon pricing, renewable standards, and phasing out fossil fuel subsidies.

Key Concepts

The UN Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as meeting present needs without compromising future generations. Sustainable energy balances environmental, economic, and social dimensions:

  • Environmental: Reduces greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and resource depletion.
  • Economic: Promotes development, efficiency, and energy security.
  • Social: Ensures affordable, reliable energy access, protecting workers’ and land rights.

Environmental Impacts

Fossil fuels, which meet 85% of global energy needs, drive climate change, air pollution, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity. They account for 76% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. The Paris Agreement aims to limit warming to 1.5°C, requiring net-zero emissions by mid-century.

Burning fossil fuels and biomass causes air pollution, leading to 7 million deaths annually, mainly in low- and middle-income countries. Indoor air pollution from cooking with polluting fuels disproportionately affects women and children.

Oil spills, thermal energy plant cooling, and bioenergy production harm the environment. Energy production uses 10% of global water, worsening scarcity in dry regions. Unsustainable wood harvesting for fuel can lead to desertification.

Sustainable energy derives from renewable sources, thereby preserving natural resources. Its production process is environmentally friendly and is free from greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants.

Economic possibilities

Over 100 countries, including both developing and developed nations, have set renewable energy targets. The European Union, for instance, aims to source 32% of its energy from renewables by 2030. The UK is also transitioning towards a more sustainable economy to combat climate change, bringing significant economic benefits:

1. Job Creation

Switching to renewable energy sources can significantly boost employment. The UK’s renewable energy sector already supports thousands of jobs and has the potential to create many more. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), renewable energy jobs globally increased to 13.7 million in 2022, up from 7.3 million in 2012.

Key Stats:

  • 4.9 million solar photovoltaic jobs globally
  • 2.5 million hydropower jobs globally
  • 2.5 million biofuels jobs globally
  • 1.4 million wind power jobs globally

2. Lower Consumer Costs

Renewable energy production is often more efficient and cost-effective than traditional methods. UK households with solar panels can significantly reduce their electric bills, especially with the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). Building new solar or wind installations is cheaper for utilities than operating coal-fired plants. Renewable energy investments can lead to substantial savings for UK consumers.

3. Business Opportunities

Renewable energy is not only environmentally beneficial but also economically advantageous. UK companies profit from manufacturing wind turbines and solar panels. For example, the UK is a leader in offshore wind energy. In 2023, global offshore wind investment hit a record $76.7 billion. The construction and automotive industries in the UK also benefit from green initiatives, such as retrofitting buildings and producing EVs.

4. Universal Energy Access

Dependence on fossil fuels leaves many without power. Globally, 775 million people lacked electricity in 2022, relying on biomass for cooking, which causes air pollution and premature deaths. Renewable energy can reach remote areas through decentralized solar and mini-grids, requiring investment from governments and NGOs.

5. Ethical Investment

The renewable sector is an ethical investment, fostering job creation and community cohesion. Rising investments create a positive outlook for the sector in the UK and beyond.

6. Reduced Disaster Recovery Costs

Climate disasters like wildfires, droughts, and storms cause immense financial loss. The UK, while less prone to extreme weather than some countries, still faces significant costs from climate change impacts. Transitioning to green energy can reduce the frequency and severity of such events, lowering recovery and rebuilding expenses.

Social aspects

Renewable energy adoption in the UK brings significant social benefits, including poverty reduction, climate change mitigation, improved public health, and advancements in gender equality.

Poverty Reduction and Job Creation

Investments in renewable energy projects create jobs, with every 1 gigawatt hour (GWh) of renewable electricity generating 3.5 jobs annually. Globally, renewable energy technologies created 9.8 million jobs in 2016. Embracing similar strategies in the UK can spur economic growth and job creation, particularly in rural areas.

Global Examples and UK Implications

Countries like China, Brazil, and India have seen substantial renewable energy investments, leading to job growth and economic development. The UK can follow suit, enhancing energy security and creating a robust green job market.

Health Improvements

Renewable energy reduces pollution, improving public health by decreasing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases linked to fossil fuel emissions. Transitioning to cleaner energy sources can significantly benefit the health of the UK population.

Gender Equality

Transitioning to renewable energy can alleviate health burdens on women, particularly in developing countries where firewood use is common. Supporting clean energy access globally aligns with efforts to promote gender equality.

Future Job Prospects

The renewable energy sector offers vast employment opportunities in the UK, with solar, wind, hydropower, and bioenergy industries showing significant job growth potential.