Sustainable development’ has been defined best by the Brundtland Commission as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.1 Adequate and affordable energy supplies have been key to economic development and the transition from subsistence agricultural economies to modern industrial and service-oriented societies. Energy is central to improved social and economic well-being, and is indispensable to most industrial and commercial wealth generation. It is key for relieving poverty, improving human welfare and raising living standards. But however essential it may be for development, energy is only a means to an end. The end is good health, high living standards, a sustainable economy and a clean environment. No form of energy — coal, solar, nuclear, wind or any other — is good or bad in itself, and each is only valuable in as far as it can deliver this end. Much of the current energy supply and use, based, as it is, on limited resources of fossil fuels, is deemed to be environmentally unsustainable. There is no energy production or conversion technology without risk or without waste. Somewhere along all energy chains — from resource extraction to the provision of energy services — pollutants are produced, emitted or disposed of, often with severe health and environmental impacts. Even if a technology does not emit harmful substances at the point of use, emissions and wastes may be associated with its manufacture or other parts of its life cycle. Combustion of fossil fuels is chiefly responsible for urban air pollution, regional acidification and the risk of human-induced climate change. The use of nuclear power has created a number of concerns, such as the storage or disposal of high-level radioactive waste and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The noncommercial use of biomass in some developing countries contributes to desertification and loss of biodiversity.
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