At a glance: Energy

Energy powers economic growth and access to it is vital if poverty is to be alleviated. But it is very unequally consumed. The world’s richest countries – with about a fifth of the world’s population – account for some 60 per cent of commercial energy use. Meanwhile some 2 billion people – one in every three inhabitants of the Earth – have no access to modern energy at all. They have to rely on such traditional fuels as wood, crop wastes and dung.

Most energy use – by both rich and poor – damages the environment. Burning fossil fuels is the main source of carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas; it also gives rise to acid rain and health damage through air pollution. Meanwhile burning traditional fuels fills the homes of the poor with toxic smoke, taking an enormous toll in deaths each year.

But there are positive ways ahead. More and more studies suggest that rich countries could actually reduce their use of energy – and continue the same level of economic growth – through dramatically increasing its efficiency. Clean renewable sources offer increasing promise both for cutting pollution and meeting the needs of the poor. Over the next two decades up to $15 trillion will be invested in new long-term energy facilities. Much will depend on how it is spent.

Geoffrey Lean

Coal fuelled the industrial revolution in developed countries. It still provides about a quarter of the world’s commercial energy, and generates about two fifths of its electricity. Its use is declining in most industrial countries, and China, the world’s largest coal user, has also recently cut consumption. There is no shortage of resources, which could last for hundreds of years. The problem is that coal is the dirtiest of all sources of energy, emitting the most carbon dioxide and other air pollutants. However, new technologies for burning it cleanly are being developed.

Oil and gas between them account for about two thirds of the world’s commercial energy and have powered most of the economic growth of the last 50 years. Their use is still increasing, and is expected to go on growing. But burning them, too, produces carbon dioxide and other pollutants. They fuel virtually all the world’s vehicles, but an increasing number of experts expect them to be replaced by hydrogen by the middle of this century.

The world’s 435 Nuclear reactors produce about 6 per cent of its commercial energy, generating 16 per cent of its electricity. But this share is now expected to decline. Few new power stations have been built in the past 15 years: none have been ordered in the United States, for example, for over two decades. Nuclear energy is less polluting than fossil fuels, and produces no greenhouse gases. But fears of the consequences of accidents (particularly after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster), failure to solve the problems posed by its wastes, rising costs and entrenched opposition have frustrated its early promise.

Renewable energy provides about 4 per cent of the world’s commercial energy; half of this is contributed by hydropower. Wind and solar power are the fastest growing sources of renewable energy, but from a very low base. In theory they could meet humanity’s energy needs many times over, and do so cleanly – but it is unclear how quickly they will be developed. Estimates of their share of the world’s energy supplies in the second half of this century range from about 20 per cent to over 50 per cent.

Two billion people still depend on Biomass fuels, such as firewood, crop wastes and dung for cooking and warmth. Gathering them is often massively time-consuming, backbreaking work, while burning them creates the world’s deadliest air pollution: every year more than 2 million people die from breathing the cocktail of chemicals given off when they burn.

Energy efficency is often called ‘Cinderella energy’ because it is widely ignored. Yet its immediate potential is far greater than any of the sources of supply. Technologies already available make it possible to cut energy consumption by half in existing industrial installations for example, and by 90 per cent in new ones. Studies have suggested that developed countries could reduce their energy consumption by two thirds without penalising economic growth.


UNEP has been concerned with energy from its foundation, more than a quarter of a century ago, because using and producing it causes a wide range of environmental problems. UNEP helps countries meet the challenge of sustainable energy and enables decision-makers better to understand the links between the energy choices they face and broader issues of sustainable development. Its efforts are primarily directed at developing countries.

UNEP’s goal is to insert a longer-term, environmental dimension into energy sector decisions. It works with a wide range of partners to develop and implement approaches for analysing energy policies, options for mitigating climate change, reform in the energy sector, energy efficiency in industry, and the environmental implications of choices in transport.

A special effort is made to help financial institutions better to understand the good opportunities there are in investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, A new UNEP partner, the Basel Agency for Sustainable Energy, is instrumental in this.

Much of UNEP’s work is done jointly with energy-environment-development institutes worldwide, and we are strengthening this informal network. Another strength is the UNEP Collaborating Centre on Energy and Environment; its international group of scientists, engineers and economists provides technical and analytical support to UNEP and partners in developing countries.

UNEP’s energy projects and activities include:

  • The African Rural Energy Enterprise Development Initiative (AREED), which enables the private sector to deliver affordable services based on clean and renewable energy technologies in five African countries. A similar initiative has started in northeast Brazil.

  • The Energy Management and Performance Related Energy Savings Scheme (EMPRESS). This project is helping establish specialized energy service companies to help industrial and commercial clients in Central and Eastern European countries.

  • Efforts aimed at helping sub-Saharan African governments with reforms to the power sector and energy subsidies, energy sector finance and climate change policy.

  • Creating a Network of Energy ‘Centres of Excellence’ promoting sustainable energy approaches through coordinated programmes of policy analysis, practical advice, targeted research and investment promotion.

  • Working with financial institutions, insurance companies and Export Credit Agencies, to explore ways to direct finance and investment flows to sustainable energy projects, particularly in developing countries.

  • The Renewable Energy Technology/Energy Efficiency Investment Advisory Facility, which helps financial institutions evaluate potential renewable energy or energy efficiency investments in developing countries and countries with economies in transition.

  • Working with rural Indian finance institutions to develop a credit facility for solar system purchases, using United Nations Foundation resources.

  • Managing a Mobility Forum for discussion and joint activities involving representatives of major automotive manufacturers.

PHOTOGRAPHS: Roger Hutchings/ UNEP/Topham, Darren Defner/UNEP/Topham, Rudolf de Ridder/UNEP/Topham, Lupidi/UNEP/Topham, UNEP/Topham, Carnero Castanedo/UNEP/Topham,

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Secure and sustainable | Fuelling multilateralism | Meeting growing needs | Make way for the zero-litre car | Power sharing | Oil and rising water | Energetic challenges | At a glance: Energy | Competition | Power to the people | Cutting carbon | Winds of change | Power and choice | Rising sun | Give us a wave! | Less energy, more wealth