At a glance:

Every year millions of people – many of them children under five – die because they cannot use modern sources of energy. Two in every five of the people on the planet have to burn wood, charcoal, dung and other forms of ‘traditional biomass’, usually on open stoves and fires. The smoke contains a cocktail of poisonous chemicals, which swirls around their homes, causing acute respiratory infections, asthma, cancer and other diseases. It is one of the world’s greatest, and least publicized, environmental crises, and it is getting worse as the spread of commercial energy fails to keep up with population growth and more and more people are forced to resort to traditional fuels.

Meanwhile, the energy use of the rich is mainly to blame for another escalating emergency – global warming. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the burning of fossil fuels have more than doubled since 1965: global temperatures and atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gas have duly risen too. Signs of climate change are already appearing: retreating glaciers, thinning sea ice, rising sea levels, and more frequent, more intense storms and droughts. Disaster threatens unless the rate of change is brought under control.

Developed countries emit most of the CO2. Per capita emissions are ten times higher in North America than in developing nations as a whole. Rich countries urgently need to reduce their energy consumption, through conservation – many experts call for a fourfold increase in efficiency by 2012 – just as poor ones need to increase their own energy consumption efficiently in order to develop.

Modern renewable sources of energy – using the sun, the wind and small-scale hydroelectric power, for example – can help tackle both crises. Distributed free by nature, they can bring clean energy and electricity to the scattered villages where about half the world’s people live. And their vast potential could allow developed countries to move onto sustainable energy paths that combat global warming and other pollution. But they have received far too little attention: solar and wind power, though growing fast, still provide only about 0.02 per cent apiece of the world’s energy supplies. A new energy revolution is long overdue.

Geoffrey Lean

Share of biomass in national energy consumption, 2001
Some two and a half billion people have no access to any form of modern energy and have to burn ’traditional biomass’ – such as wood, charcoal and dung – for heating and cooking. In some countries it provides over 90 per cent of national energy supplies. It dominates the global use of renewable energies – but in many ways this is a misnomer, for cutting trees and removing wastes from the land faster than they are replaced reduces its fertility and leads to soil erosion.

Trends in use of biomass as cooking fuel relative to GNP per capita
The poorer a country, the more its people generally have to depend on traditional biomass, and the more likely they are to sicken and die as a result. Tanzanian children who die of acute respiratory infection before their fifth birthday are three times more likely than healthy ones to have had to sleep in a room with an open cooking stove.

World primary energy supply, 2001
Fossil fuels still provide almost 80 per cent of the world’s energy, though this has declined from about 86 per cent in 1971. They are mainly burned by the less than a fifth of humanity that lives in the OECD countries. Modern renewable energy still provides a tiny proportion, and most of this comes from hydroelectric power from big dams which can themselves damage the environment and societies.

Priorities for energy R&D in major industrialized countries
Nuclear power has dominated research funding in developed countries for decades, but has failed to meet its promise. The building of new reactors declined sharply from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, and few have been started over the last 15 years. Much more research is needed on renewables if they are to meet their potential and help both developed and developing countries towards sustainable development.

Global temperatures – and CO2 concentrations – will continue to rise, but the rate of increase can be cut. In four UNEP scenarios – Markets First, Policy First, Security First and Sustainability First – only the last puts concentrations on a trajectory to stabilize by mid-century and reduces the rate of temperature increase over 50 years. But even this ends up with an increase of well over 0.1oC a decade, the level above which damage to ecosystems is likely to occur.

This issue:
Contents | Editorial | Key to development | The energy challenge | Plant power | Bioenergy: doing well while doing right | New energy for development | People | Delivering Change | Benign growth | Green energy | At a glance: Energy | Sustainable Dreams | Brightening the future | Greening oil | Blue-sky thinking | Books & products | New energy to assault poverty | New energy entrepreneurs | Time to get serious | Breaking the ice | In my lifetime – 100% renewable

Complementary issues:
WSSD, 2002
Poverty Health and the Environment, 2001
Disasters, 2001
Climate and Action, 1998
Climate Change, 1997

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Natural Resources
Air Pollution
Climate Change