The non-climate environmental impacts of the decarbonisation of the electricity sector

Published on 16/12/2019

Our researcher Thomas Gibon is co-author of an article published on 19 November in Nature. Entitled "Environmental co-benefits and adverse side-effects of alternative power sector decarbonization strategies", the article deals with the decarbonization of the electricity sector.

The energy sector is the origin of a wide variety of environmental impacts. While much of the public debate focuses on its contribution to global warming via greenhouse gas emissions, energy supply systems also account for substantial shares of other environmental impacts, such as air and water pollution, land occupation, water use, ionizing radiation and nuclear waste, as well as fossil and mineral resource depletion. Thus far, there is only very limited system-level research on the benefits and adverse side-effects of future decarbonized power supply in terms of non-climate environmental impacts.

Thomas Gibon and his co-authors have used different integrated assessment models to compute various scenarios:

  • business-as-usual,
  • all technologies in the mix,
  • low penetration of new technologies and
  • 100% new renewable.

As a conclusion in the article, conventional methods to produce electricity, using fossil energy, like coal or natural gas, are harmful not only to human health, but also to the planet’s ecosystems – under normal operation, without even accounting for accidents. In addition, even if solar panels could have some disadvantages, they remain, with wind turbines, the best low-impact alternatives to face the constantly increasing demand on electricity supply. Nevertheless, it must be taken into account that some options, such as biopower, can take up a lot of space, and in a perspective of a continuously growing population, in which food needs are increasing, it will be necessary to use the available space wisely.

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