The environmental and socio-economic impacts of global power sector transition
Figure 1 shows the net changes of environmental emissions, water resources use, material use, and socioeconomic impacts (the basic indicators to evaluate SDG progress) associated with global power transition under six different scenarios- SSP2 + RCP6.0, SSP2 + RCP4.5, SSP2 + RCP2.6, SSP1 + RCP6.0, SSP1 + RCP4.5 and SSP1 + RCP2.6.
We find that global CO2 emissions (34.85 Gt in 2015) would increase by 5.86–13.68% and 4.94–8.94% under RCP6.0 and RCP4.5 scenarios between 2015 and 2050, but decrease by 6.79–9.87% under RCP2.6 scenarios (Figs. 1a and 1b). The discrepancy of emissions under different scenarios are mainly based on the assumptions of different energy mix of electricity production (Table S1). Given the stronger pollution controls in the future 32,33, all the projections show decreasing trends of PM emissions (Figs. 1c and 1d).
For blue water consumption, our scenario analysis shows a similar trend as the changes in CO2 emissions, except the SSP1 + RCP2.6 scenario results where a significant annual decrease of 3.25 Gm3 (-0.28%) blue water consumption associated with power transition by 2050 could be observed, in contrast with the increase of blue water consumption under the RCP4.5 and RCP2.6 scenarios (Figs. 1e and 1f). However, blue water withdrawal would gradually decrease under all scenarios due to the extensive application of circulating cooling technology (Figs. 1g and 1h).
Along with higher demand for electricity in the future, all scenarios are accompanied with an increasing use of materials, such as metal, non-metal minerals and biomass for power transition, except a decrease of fossil fuels (Figs. 1i-l). However, power sector would consume much less fossil fuel materials and more metal, non-metal minerals and biomass materials under the RCP2.6 scenarios, compared with the results under other scenarios.
In terms of socio-economic impacts of the power production and transition, we could see a significant increase in employment (Figs. 1m and 1n) under all scenarios, due to the high future demand of electricity. As per unit of installed capacity for renewables can generate more jobs than that of coal power 34, our results show that power generation and transition under the RCP2.6 scenarios (the most ambitious scenario with renewables generation) may bring more job opportunities, compared with the results under RCP6.0 and RCP4.5 scenarios.
Power transition’s impacts on global SDGs
Here, we translate the changes in environmental and social-economic indicators into global SDGs progress using the United Nations SDG assessment approach (see method section). Our results show that the global SDG index score, defined as the overall performance in achieving all individual SDG evaluated, would increase from 65.30 in 2015 to 71.62–71.64 in 2050 under RCP2.6 scenarios, compared with 66.55–68.55 and 67.53–68.72 under RCP6.0 and RCP4.5 scenarios, respectively (Fig. 2a). Advances in technology and efficiency in electricity generation play a dominant role in global SDG performance of the power sector. We also find that global SDG index scores would rise even when fossil power generation increases under the RCP6.0 and RCP2.6 scenarios.
Almost all individual SDG would benefit from the transition at global scale. In 2050, SDG 6.4, SDG7.2, SDG 8.4, SDG 8.5, SDG 11.6, and SDG 12.2 present higher scores under RCP2.6 scenarios than that under RCP4.5 and RCP6.0 scenarios. The resources use and socio-economic benefits from the low carbon transition are intrinsically related to the reduction in blue water use, fossil fuels use from the shutdown of a large number of thermal power plants. However, before 2035, the continuous expansion of the scale of electricity generation would lead to a large amount of CO2 emissions in both power generation and its upstream supply chains (e.g., manufacturing sector), which lead to a decline in the scores of SDG 9.4 and SDG 13.2. For example, in 2035, SDG 9.4 score under SSP2 + RCP2.6 (50.43) is less than 9.07% of that in 2015 (55.46).
The impacts of power transition on regional SDGs
The changes of SDG index score vary significantly across economies (Figure. 3). Here, we take SSP2 as an example. In general, the higher the GDP per capita is, the more inclined an economy is to improve the SDG index scores and vice versa (Table S2). During the period of 2015–2050, the average SDG index scores of developed economies would increase by 3.70% and the power transition in almost every developed economy would improve their SDG scores to some extent under RCP2.6 scenario. However, a few developed economies, such as Canada, may face a decline in their SDG scores under the RCP6.0 scenario. In contrast, more than half of the developing economies, mainly from Asia and Africa, would have a decline in their SDG scores under the RCP6.0 scenario, while this number decreased to about 20% under the RCP2.6 scenario.
Estonia, one of the countries that completely relies on fossil fuel for power generation, would experience the biggest increase in SDG index score by 2050 under all scenarios, with a range of 3.05 to 12.36, due to significantly expansion of renewable power for substitution of coal power under the European Climate Law 35. This verifies that strict climate legislation can effectively improve the sustainable development level of regions that are highly dependent on fossil power. In contrast, Indonesia has the biggest drops in SDG index score by 6.79, because natural gas power would grow substantially in this emerging economy.
Regional power transition could also lead to synergies and trade-offs between different individual SDGs under RCP2.6 (Fig. 4c). As for synergies, more than 60%, 90%, 80%, 80%, and 80% of the economies considered would have an increase in SDG 6.4 scores, SDG 8.5 scores, SDG 9.4 scores, SDG 11.6 scores, SDG 13.2 scores. However, there exists differences between SDG 8.4/12.2 and SDG index. For example, under RCP2.6, United States’ SDG index score would increase by 7.78 in 2050, but due to the increase of material use during the transition, its SDG 8.4 score fall by 0.53. In addition, the power transition will improve all individual SDGs score in some economies, such as Bulgaria, China, Australia.
The effects of power transition related international trade changes on SDGs
Power transition will not only change the scale and patterns of international trade, but also exert effects on environmental emissions, resources consumption and employment embodied in exports and imports, thus influencing SDG performance in different regions. The energy transition induced international trade change would improve the overall SDG performance (2.33–4.36%) globally between 2015 and 2050 (Fig. 5a). However, the overall impact is rather limited, as the amount of traded commodities and services (measured by monetary value) related to power sector only account for less than 2% of the international trade. Climate-related SDG (SDG 13.2) performance will have the highest degree of improvement (0.5%), mainly due to the reduction of CO2 emissions embodied in thermal power-related trade, under RCP2.6. (Fig. 5h). The employment-related SDG (SDG 8.5) performance will be improved, mainly because of the expansion of labor intensive renewable power sectors (Fig. 5d). However, all scenarios show a decline (0.03–0.13%) in the average scores of material use-related SDGs (SDGs 8.4 and 12.2), due to the increase in power production related resource use met by international trade (Figs. 5b, 5c and 5g).
From a regional perspective, more than 70% of economies would improve their SDG performance under all scenarios (Fig. 5). Only the SDG performance of developing economies with rich fossil energy and material resources, such as the Middle East, would be impeded by international trade, as the expansion of power production results in the increase of power sector related resource consumption and environmental emissions embodied in international trade.