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Sustainable development and the demand for energy

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This is part of a series of blogs focused on the Sustainable Development Goals and data from the 2016 Edition of World Development Indicators.

Between 1990 and 2013 worldwide energy use increased by about 54 percent,  more than the 36 percent increase in the global population. Access to energy is fundamental to development, but as economies evolve, rising incomes and growing populations demand more energy.  Sustainable Development Goal 7 seeks to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all and achieving this will require increasing access to electricity, the take-up of clean fuels and renewable energies, and energy efficiency.

Achieving universal access

Universal access to affordable, reliable, and modern energy services is critical to sustainable development (target 7.1). Energy, especially electricity, is crucial to improving the standard of living for people in low- and middle-income countries. It is key to providing reliable and efficient lighting, heating, cooking, and mechanical power; to delivering clean water, sanitation, and healthcare; and to operating well functioning transport and telecommunications services. Modern energy services are central to the economic development of a country and to the welfare of its citizens. Without such services, businesses stagnate, and the potential of people to live healthy, productive lives is diminished.

Improvements over the past two decades has led to 85 percent of the world enjoying access to electricity in 2012. Nevertheless around 1.1 billion people are still without access to electricity .  In Sub-Saharan Africa only 35 percent of the population has access to electricity, the lowest among all regions . Almost 40 percent of the world’s population relies primarily on wood, coal, charcoal, or animal waste to cook their food, breathing in toxic smoke that causes lung disease and kills nearly four million people a year, most of them women and children.

Using renewable energy

While the share of energy use from alternative, cleaner sources has increased since 1970 in all income groups, fossil fuels still contribute around 81 percent of the world’s energy use . Countries need to substantially increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix (target 7.2) from its currently small share of just 18 percent of the total.

The largest share of renewable energy comes from traditional uses of biomass (such as woodfuels, agricultural by-products and dung).  Modern biomass and hydropower are significant modern renewable energy sources, each accounting for 3 to 4 percent of total final energy consumption.  Other modern renewables (such as biomass, geothermal, wind and solar) –currently around 1 percent of total consumption – have substantial potential for growth.

The share of renewable energy varies hugely across the globe. It is falling in lower income regions as they switch from traditional biomass to more modern fuels for cooking and heating. By contrast higher income regions are gradually shifting towards renewable energy sources, albeit from a low base.

Increasing energy efficiency

Sustainable Development Goal 7 calls on countries to collectively double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency, and technological progress and a shift away from energy-intensive activities can support this (target 7.3). The energy intensity level of primary energy—the ratio of energy supply to GDP in purchasing power parity terms—indicates energy efficiency, or how much energy is used to produce one unit of economic output. A lower ratio indicates that less energy is used to produce one unit of output. Between 1990 and 2012 the ratio declined 27 percent globally as energy efficiency improved in all income groups  which helped keep total final energy consumption a third lower than it might have been. The coverage of energy efficiency regulations in industry, buildings, and transport has nearly doubled, from 14 percent of the world’s energy consumption in 2005 to 27 percent in 2014. Still much more needs to be done


Edie Purdie

Consultant, Development Data Group (DECDG), World Bank

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