Environmental sustainability of electricity supply in the world between 1980 and 2011: Lessons learnt and perspectives

Alexis Laurent, Nieves Espinosa Martinez

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference abstract in proceedingsResearchpeer-review


The generation of electricity is known to cause important damages to environment and human health. The political awareness of the global challenges posed by climate change and resource depletion has guided several countries to gradually move from a dominant use of fossil fuels towards more utilisation of renewables. However, has such moves led to burden-shifting from these environmental impacts to others as relevant? Considering the whole spectrum of environmental problems, are there any identifiable patterns across regions or impact categories that could serve to draw recommendations for energy planning? To address these questions, we collected annual data on electricity generation for 199 countries and territories for the period 1980-2011, differentiated per types of energy sources. These data were combined with region-specific life cycle inventories of pollutant emissions and resource consumptions to assess ten environmental impact categories, e.g. climate change, water use or chemical pollution. The results show that, for several regions, the majority of these impacts have increased between 1980 and 2011. Asia and the Middle East – and to a lesser degree, Africa and Latin America – thus show steep increase, up to more than one order of magnitude, in nearly all indicators when compared to their 1980- baseline values. To estimate the “environmental cleanness” of the grid mixes over time, the impact scores were normalized by the electricity generated yearly within each country. This revealed burden-shifting occurrences in almost all regions within the period 1980-2011. For example, in Asia, normalized impacts of particulate matters on human health have more than doubled, while increase in climate change scores have been limited to ca. 35%,. Based on our findings, we therefore recommend that electricity planning be accompanied with quantification of all relevant environmental impacts of the foreseen energy systems to prevent or minimise problem-shiftings ensuring an environmentally-sound energy transition.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAbstract Book - DTU Sustain Conference 2014
Number of pages1
Place of PublicationKgs. Lyngby
PublisherTechnical University of Denmark
Publication date2014
Publication statusPublished - 2014
EventDTU Sustain Conference 2014 - Technical University of Denmark, Lyngby, Denmark
Duration: 17 Dec 201417 Dec 2014


ConferenceDTU Sustain Conference 2014
LocationTechnical University of Denmark
Internet address

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