Green energy can power tomorrow — and create a healthier planet

The objectives set by the United Nations for the seventh Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 7) are unambiguous: ensure cost-effective energy accessibility; increase reliance on renewable resources; enhance energy productivity annually; and bolster global collaboration in backing green-energy research, advancement, and infrastructure. However, achieving these objectives is far from straightforward. As highlighted in numerous articles in this series that review the SDGs at their midpoint, the global community is not meeting expectations.

One significant reason for this shortfall is the clout of the fossil-fuel sector, which shapes both the economic dynamics and frequently the political landscapes of nations, irrespective of their size or wealth status. Historically, the growth in societal affluence, as denoted by economic expansion, has been closely associated with plentiful fossil fuel resources. A considerable number of policymakers are apprehensive that emphasizing green energy might hinder economic progress. Contemporary research distinctly challenges this perspective — yet, the insights from the scientific community aren’t reaching the pivotal arenas. For the realization of the aspirations set in SDG 7, this dynamic needs a shift.

The journey ahead is extensive. In 2021, around 675 million individuals globally were without electricity. This is a decrease from 1.1 billion roughly ten years prior, but the momentum of advancements is decelerating. Given ongoing patterns, 660 million individuals, a significant portion in sub-Saharan Africa, will still lack electricity by 2030. Forecasts suggest that nearly 1.9 billion people will persist in using contaminating and suboptimal cooking methods powered by coal and timber. Such scenarios spell trouble from various angles: human health, ecological diversity, and the global climate. Reaching the goals for energy accessibility was always going to be ambitious, yet headway in other areas has been languid as well. Consider energy conservation. Enhanced energy conservation implies reduced contamination, and there’s been about a 2% yearly rise in energy conservation over the previous few years. However, to achieve the 2030 objective — which is to amplify the rate of the 1990–2010 period — we’d need improvements of approximately 3.4% each year throughout this decade.

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The situation with renewable energy sources presents a similar narrative. Even with significant expansion in wind and solar energy for electricity generation, strides in the heating and transportation domains are still lethargic. In 2020, renewables accounted for merely 19.1% of the global energy intake as indicated by the most recent UN assessment, yet a third of this stemmed from combusting materials like timber. A factor contributing to this gradual advancement is the persistent belief that bold green-energy objectives might hinder economic growth. It’s more straightforward and lucrative for dominant fossil-fuel entities to merely adhere to the existing patterns. Merely a month ago, representatives from the G20 consortium of the planet’s leading economies, which includes the European Union, India, Saudi Arabia, and the USA, couldn’t concur on a strategy to eliminate fossil fuel usage and triple the output of renewable energy by 2030.

However, this is where science offers a narrative. Historically, experts believed that many projections showed renewable energy as pricier than fossil fuels, potentially making it unaffordable for the most impoverished countries and also increasing food costs, thereby intensifying hunger issues. Yet, recent studies paint a more intricate scenario. Energy is pivotal to most of the SDGs, and studies bridging climate, energy, and the SDGs emphasize this. For instance, sectors related to agriculture and food transportation still rely on fossil fuels, producing pollution responsible for the deaths of millions annually. Other connections are less direct: the absence of nighttime illumination and online resources, due to energy scarcity, restricts educational opportunities and contributes to persistent and immediate disparities.

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What research teaches us is that confronting these issues collectively might be more feasible than doing so individually. In 2021, scholar Gabriela Iacobuţă from the German Institute of Development and Sustainability in Bonn, along with her team, demonstrated that approaches focusing on sustainable resources and optimization usually have minimal downsides and numerous advantages, such as enhanced public health and economic prosperity, attributed to a healthier environment and superior employment opportunities. Furthermore, climatologist Bjoern Soergel from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and his associates determined that an integrated set of climate and growth strategies could accomplish the majority of the SDGs while restricting the temperature rise to 1.5°C above baseline levels.

This research evaluated 56 metrics spanning all 17 SDGs. One suggested strategy is a global climate finance system imposing charges on carbon discharges, the revenue from which would be reallocated via domestic initiatives to alleviate poverty. Another emphasizes endorsing nutritious eating habits — which involves cutting down meat consumption that demands significant water, energy, and land resources. This could aid those with limited financial resources by decreasing both food and energy costs. The paramount hurdle is adapting these theoretical frameworks to practical applications. To achieve this, we necessitate leaders who aren’t confined by archaic perspectives, are updated with contemporary scientific insights, and can leverage this data to rally public endorsement for the essential shift in energy sources. We need an increase in both domestic and global public organizations ready to tackle challenges holistically. And central to all this is a scientific community enthusiastic and competent to advocate for knowledge and facts.

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