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Indicators in Practice

Oct 2, 2014

Energy Sustainability Index

It's easy for policy discussions to take place in a vacum, especially if they draw on the kinds of specialized knowledge and technical know-how that energy strategy often calls for. However, seeing outside of traditional silos is crucial to finding durable solutions to these kinds of challenges. That's the premise that informs the World Energy Council's (WEC) Energy Sustainability Index, which rankes energy security, equity, and sustainability, to broaden the context of policy conversations.

Scope: International (considers 129 countries)

First Released: June 2013

Intended Audience: Policymakers, analysts, private sector, citizens

Potential Application: Encourage stakeholders to consider energy policy holistically. Help identify gaps and trade-offs between countries' current mix of energy security, equity, and sustainability policies.

Developer: World Energy Council and Oliver Wyman

Website: http://www.worldenergy.org/data/sustainability-index/

Description: The WEC’s Energy Sustainability Index focuses on the connections between different facets of energy use, sweeping a broad context into its rankings. The Index scores 129 nations according to their performance on energy security, energy equity, and environmental sustainability. A balancing score also ranks how well nations juggle this “trilemma” of energy needs. The Index identifies best practices that emerge from nations that might be otherwise overlooked, and calls attention to weak spots in high-scoring countries.

The breakdown of the United States’ 15th-place rank, for instance, paints a more nuanced picture of the country’s strengths and weaknesses. The US finishes first in terms of energy equity -- that is, in terms of the reliability of its energy infrastructure, its ability to meet the nation’s current and anticipated energy demand, and its management of the energy supply. It comes in 12th in terms of energy security, and places a distant 86th in environmental sustainability. The Index looks to energy efficiency achievements, and the use of renewable and low-carbon sources, to determine environmental sustainability scores. A carbon-dioxide-heavy thermal energy mix, along with high energy and emissions intensities, lowers the United States' sustainability score. In other words, the US uses more energy -- and releases more carbon pollution -- for its GDP, relative to other countries.     

For instance, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, and the United Kingdom claim the Energy Sustainability Index’s first five spots. Despite -- or perhaps spurred on by -- a lack of strong local fossil fuel deposts, Europe as a whole scored well across all three metrics the Index considered. Low and zero-carbon energy sources power an average of 47% of electricty generation in European countries, a strategy complemented by efforts to maintain low energy consumption.  

The clustering of high performers within the European Union reflects broader trends within the Energy Sustainability Index: higher-incomes and service-based economies are two of the common denominators among top-scoring nations. Developed nations make up the entire roster of the Index's top 10 finishers. 

Figure 2. A comparison of key metrics among GDP groups in the World Energy Council's 2013 Energy Sustainability Index results.  

Overall, several trends in scoring emerged, many of them tied to a country's economic position. In a report of the Index’s findings, the World Energy Council describes five country profiles that encapsulate trends in nations' performance in regards to energy:

  1. “Pack leaders,” such as Sweden and Denmark, use higher percentages of renewable energy to strengthen both their energy security and their environmental sustainability.  

  2. “Fossil-fuelled” countries, such as Saudi Arabia or Malaysia, maintain secure and affordable energy, but often at the expense of environmental sustainability.  

  3. “Highly-industrialised” countries, like India or Mexico, struggle to provide energy that meets environmental and accessibility goals, while keeping pace with rapid economic growth.

  4. In contrast, “hydro-powered” nations, such as Brazil and Colombia, offer more environmentally sensitive, but less accessible and affordable, energy.  

  5. Finally, “back of the pack” nations, like Zimbabwe and Nicaragua, are stymied by a lack of energy investment.  

Across the board, balancing the security, equity, and environmental aspects of energy sustainability proved incredibly challenging; only five countries ranked in the top 25 across all three categories. However, higher shares of low or zero-carbon energy sources, along with strong energy efficiency programs, accounted for a great deal of the success of these “pack leaders.” The World Energy Council notes that, “as renewable energy sources become more widely available, powerful and cost-effective, fast-growing developing countries may be able to leverage environmentally-sensitive and affordable energy sources to support their industrialisation and improve their populations’ access to energy.”  In other words, while renewable energy does not provide a silver bullet, it offers a new way to re-align security, environmental, and equity concerns.  By contextualizing energy within a larger framework, the index calls attention to the potential synergies -- as well as tradeoffs -- in balancing a nation’s overall energy needs.