Energy efficiency: a Silver Bullet for the SDGs?

20 Mar 2019

By Thibaud Voïta, PhD

This paper is a short presentation of a Commentary published by the author for the Payne Institute of the Colorado Schools of Mines. It aims at identifying ‘win-win’ situations where energy efficiency can significantly help achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and consists of a quick overview of these potential interactions. One of its objectives is to generate interest in further research that would support policy decisions and allocate more resources to the promotion of energy efficiency policies.

Understanding the interlinkages between energy efficiency and the SDGs

Though the benefits of energy efficiency have been analysed by several bodies[1], their findings often remain outside the realm of energy. Worse, many academic works misunderstand the impact of energy efficiency measures. For instance, the International Council for Science published an analysis of the interactions between different SDGs and considered energy efficiency along with renewable energy as being “consistent” or “constraining” to Goal 1’s target 4 on access to economic resources[2]. The report states that “Decarbonising the energy system through renewables and efficiency is consistent with the provision of basic energy services as long as policies help to shield the poor from any fuel price increases that may result. Lacking such policies, 7.2 and 7.3 could constrain the options for achieving 1.4[3]. While energy efficiency measures require important upfront investment, they normally allow for a reduction of energy consumption and lighten the burden of energy costs in household spending. Energy efficiency is indeed a major means to reduce energy poverty and promote affordable housing.

The following paragraphs outline some of the main interactions between the energy efficiency target and SDGs 1 (on Poverty), 3 (Good Health and Well-Being) and 4 (Education) to present how energy efficiency serves as the first fuel for development.

Energy efficiency for SDG.1 - supporting poverty eradication 

As energy efficiency requires upfront investments, it suffers from the perception of being costly and does not appear as an obvious tool for the fight against poverty. However, energy efficiency is key to address the lack of energy access and fuel poverty. As for energy access, World Bank’s ESMAP shows that energy efficiency has a positive effect on the peak capacity, duration of service, evening supply and affordability of energy[4]. As such, it is indispensable to ensure electricity for basic goods such as lighting, refrigerators or others.

Energy efficiency also matters for people already connected to the grid but suffering from fuel poverty. Fuel poverty is defined as “a situation where individuals of households are not able to adequately heat or provide other required energy services in their homes at affordable costs” [5]. It is reached when an energy bill represents more than 10% of the annual income of a household[6]. The importance of fuel poverty is difficult to measure. However, it should not be underestimated as even in industrialised economies: in the European Union alone, fuel poverty is said to affect between 60 and 150 million people[7]. According to a survey conducted in multifamily affordable housing in several US states by the Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA) program, energy efficiency programs can cut electricity usage by 32% and natural gas by 24%[8].

Energy efficiency for SDG.3 - improving health and well-being

A strong relation exists between energy efficiency, health and well-being. Indeed, energy efficiency can have an indirect but important impact (positive, but also sometimes negative) on different emissions that affect air quality. However, ICSU (2017) links indoor air quality to SDG7 target 1 (on energy access) and not with energy efficiency[9].

Energy efficient heating and cooling systems can improve the well-being of people, for instance by mitigating the effect of extreme weather in-door, or by providing bedrooms with a temperature appropriate to sleep. The importance of these heating and (especially) cooling systems is likely to grow in the coming years, as the climate changes, and is poised to lead to important temperature increases in most of the regions of the world[10].

Energy efficiency measures can improve insulation, addressing leaky windows issues and by doing so preventing cold drafts and avoiding indoor extreme temperatures. In addition, energy efficiency can improve the sealing of building envelopes, which in return will prevent pests and moisture infiltration and avoid growth of mold and the introduction of allergens and diseases. As such, energy efficiency can reduce and mitigate health issues related to asthma and other respiratory illness, as for instance obstructive pulmonary disease and bronchitis. Energy efficiency can also bring benefits to people suffering from cardiovascular and mental health issues[11]. By addressing energy access and fuel poverty issues, energy efficiency also improves mental well-being and addresses some mental disorders linked to the stress of high energy bills and debts[12]. Finally, it should also be noted that energy efficiency can also help improve energy performance of hospitals, which are major energy consumers[13].

Energy efficiency for SDG. 4 - creating better study environment

Efficient lighting products, such as light-emitting diode (LED) extend the lifetime of a light-bulb and as such can help pupils studying when evenings are getting dark. But energy efficiency can also provide an appropriate environment for children to study at school. For instance, ensuring proper heating is essential in regions with cold winter. In the early 2000s, concerns were raised about education in several Central Asia countries. In Kyrgyzstan, the Asian Development Bank estimates that, during the 1992 – 2000 period, 187 schools were built for 59,800 children, 92 schools renovated in the South and another 187 extensions were made to existing schools, to accommodate 25,700 additional children. However, some local governments in rural areas could not have sufficient resources to bring heat to the schools on their jurisdictions. Though the impact of the lack of electricity and heat on learning in schools has not been documented in these regions, cold weather is likely to have had a significant and negative impact on the learning processes and school attendance[14].


There are number of often-overlooked links between energy efficiency and the SDGs. This paper only focuses on three SDGS but in future research work, these links should be further analysed and interactions with other SDGs highlighted. However, a first conclusion is that energy efficiency is a key enabler for the SDGs. Energy efficiency should be a public policy and investment priority, as its benefits not only outgrow its costs, but also spread to the whole society

Thibaud Voïta is a consultant and research associate at the French Institute for International Relations. His experience includes work with NGOs on industrial efficiency in China, and with the International Partnership for Energy Efficiency Cooperation (IPEEC). He was in 2014 seconded by the French government to the UN to work on the energy efficiency component of SDG7 and on the COP 21 preparation. He has been seconded again to the NDC Partnership since 2018. Thibaud holds a PhD from the Paris Institute of Political Science and has published a number of papers on energy efficiency and on China clean energy policies.


[1] See for instance: IEA (2014) Capturing the Multiple Benefits of Energy Efficiency, IEA: Paris, 232 pp or more recently: Eichhammer W., Reuters M., Walz R., Patel M. (2018) “Measuring multiple benefits for energy efficiency in the industrial sector”, European Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ECEEE) Proceedings: Industrial Efficiency 2018: Leading the low-carbon transition, 11-13 June.

[2] SDG 1.4 states as a target : “By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance” and with two indicators, namely: “Proportion of population living in households with access to basic services” (1.4.1) and “Proportion of total adult population with secure tenure rights to land, with legally recognized documentation and who perceive their rights to land as secure, by sex and by type of tenure” (1.4.2).

[3] International Council for Science (ICSU) (2017) A Guide to SDG Interactions from Science to Implementation [D.J. Griggs, M. Nilsson, A. Stevance, D. MacCollum (eds)], Paris: International Council for Science, p. 137.

[4] Angelou N. (2014) A New Multi-tier Approach to Measuring Energy Access, ESMAP (Energy Sector Management Assistance Program), 34 pp.

[5] Pye S., Dobbins A. et al, (2015), Energy Poverty and vulnerable consumers in the energy sector across the EU: analysis of policies and measures, Insight Energy; and Energie-Control Austria (2013), Energy Poverty in Austria, Definitions and Indicators.

[6] IEA (2014) Capturing the Multiple Benefits of Energy Efficiency, op. cit. p. 98.

[7] Ibid, as well Pye S., Dobbin A. et al. (2015) op. cit. The difference can probably be explained by the differences on how fuel poverty is defined and therefore calculated.

[8] Optimal Energy (2015) Potential for Energy Savings in Affordable Multifamily Housing, NRDC and Energy Efficiency for All, May, 128 pp.  

[9] P. 146.

[10] IEA (2018) The Future of Cooling. Opportunities for energy-efficient air conditioning, Paris: IEA, 92 pp.

[11] Denson R., Hayes S. (2018) “The Next Nexus: Exemplary Programs That Save Energy and Improve Health”, Washington DC: ACEEE, Report H1802, March, 40 pp.

[12] IEA (2014), Capturing the Multiple Benefits of Energy Efficiency, op. cit., p. 100.

[13] Bonnema E., Studer D., Parker A., Pless S. and Torcellini P. (2010) Large Hospital 50% Energy Savings: Technical Support Document, Technical Report, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, September, 188 pp.  and Carbon Trust () Hospitals. Healthy budgets through energy efficiency, London: Carbon Trust, 36 pp.

[14] Huttova J., Silvova I., Voolma H. (2002) Education Development in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan: Challenges and Ways Forward, Budapest: Open Society, March.