Fossil fuels vs renewable energy: Which is best?

Posted on 05 December 2023

A field of solar panels in Extremadura, Spain

Producing energy to power our societies and help them develop sustainably is essential, but it also has impacts on the natural world.

Burning fossil fuels is irrevocably destabilising our climate, changing our oceans, degrading ecosystems and driving species towards extinction.

Extracting coal, oil, and natural gas has wide-ranging impacts - it destroys habitats, disturbs migration and feeding grounds, affects livelihoods like fishery and tourism, and pollutes our air, water, and land. 

But the cleaner alternatives, such as renewable energy, have impacts as well.
 
Free-flowing rivers can be blocked by large hydropower dams. Forests can be cut down to burn or to grow crops for fuel. Birds and bats may be injured or killed by wind farms. Habitats could be destroyed to mine the extra critical materials we will need for electric vehicles and clean energy infrastructure.

So what’s the right answer?

Which has the greater impact – fossil fuels or renewables? And what can we do to produce energy we need in the cleanest, most nature- and people-friendly way possible?

WWF worked with the Boston Consulting Group to understand the impacts on nature and people of two different future scenarios.

In one future, the world rapidly moves to decarbonise the global economy and switch to low-carbon technologies, like renewables and electric vehicles.

Global warming is held to no more than 1.5°C, meeting the goal of the Paris Agreement. 

In the other future, our economies remain dependent on fossil fuels. Average global temperatures rise by up to 3.2°C by the end of the century - further fueling the climate crisis.

The results were unequivocal.

Across 30 different measures of environmental and social wellbeing, the clean-energy transition future was between two and 16 times better for nature and society than the fossil-fueled "business-as-usual" one.

For example, under the fossil fuel scenario, the impacts of climate change, ocean acidification and pollution from fossil fuels result in four times the loss of nature – including species extinctions – compared with a clean energy transition.

Even factoring in mining and its impacts on natural ecosystems, the shift away from fossil energy would mean that by 2050, 30% less land would be mined than under a coal, oil, and gas-fueled future. 

We must not ignore future impacts on nature and people that a clean energy system would have. But, there are choices we can make in any clean energy transition to reduce these impacts. 

Careful planning is vital to minimise the negatives and to not make the same mistakes made with the exploration of fossil fuels.

WWF is working to help promote a clean energy transformation that is aligned with nature and people, ensuring we all have the energy we need, without it costing the earth.

Leaders at COP28 must take action so that all countries can agree to phase out fossil fuels and transition to renewables before 2050.

Find out more: panda.org/cop28