Sustainable production and consumption of energy: Developments since the 1992 Rio Summit

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Journal Article

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Energy is a fundamental component of myriad services and benefits to humanity in pursuit of a healthy and productive life, including production of food and other essential goods; provision of buildings for housing, education, health care, and commerce; and provision of transportation for goods and people. However, production and consumption of fossil fuel-based energy, which accounts for approximately 85% of total energy consumption in the United States can also result in scarring or pollution of the environment during extraction of the fuels and contributes to local air pollution and smog formation, regional acid rain production, and global warming as the fuels are burned. Further, continued large-scale consumption of nonrenewable energy sources will eventually lead to depletion of these resources and future generations will need to rely on alternative sources of energy. Thus, the significant characteristics of sustainable development for the energy sector include more efficient use of nonrenewable fossil fuel-based energy resources, development of technologies to significantly reduce local and global pollutants from fossil fuels, and increased development and use of renewable energy resources.

This Article looks at the characteristics of sustainable development vis-a-vis energy consumption and production, reviews the laws and policies enacted in the United States that could contribute to more sustainable energy consumption and production, and evaluates actual achievements in three areas that measure sustainability of energy consumption and production. We find that although there are many guiding principles relevant to energy sustainability and there have been numerous energy-related laws and policies enacted both prior to and after the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, growth in fossil fuel-based energy use as well as in energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions was more rapid—and thus less sustainable—in the eight years after 1992 than in the two decades prior to Rio. We recommend a comprehensive package of policies and measures that includes carbon fees, increased research and development (R&D), expanded efficiency standards, building codes, tax credits for energy efficiency and renewable energy investments, expanded government procurement programs, negotiated agreements with industries to improve energy intensity of manufacturing, increased information dissemination, promotion of combined heat and power, increased fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, etc. A recent study that analyzed the combined impact of this comprehensive package found that, if very aggressive policies were introduced in all sectors and significant research and development breakthroughs occurred in the transportation sector, it might be possible to reduce energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.


Environmental Law Reporter



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