The generation of electricity has been known to cause important damages to ecosystems and human health. The recognition of the global challenges posed by climate change and energy security has guided several countries to change their electricity policies over the past decades. However, have such changes entailed reduced or increased environmental impacts? Are there any identifiable patterns that could serve for steering future energy planning? To address these questions, we applied life cycle assessment to quantify a whole spectrum of environmental impacts caused by electricity generation in 199 countries for the period 1980– 2011, with national differentiation of energy sources and, wherever possible, technology efficiencies. The results show that (i) environmental impact burden-shifting has occurred in the past for several countries as a result of national policies, (ii) all environmental impacts have globally increased since 1980 but with faster increase rates over the last decade, and (iii) important variations exist in the impact trends across countries and across impact categories. Our findings therefore demonstrate the need for integrating quantitative assessments of all relevant environmental impacts associated with foreseen energy systems when identifying the most sustainable energy pathways. We provide recommendations on the use of life cycle assessment for such purposes with a strong focus on application at the country level so that it can directly support national energy policy-making.