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Historically, economic development has been strongly correlated with increasing energy use and growth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Renewable energy (RE) can help decouple that correlation, contributing to sustainable development (SD). In addition, RE offers the opportunity to improve access to modern energy services for the poorest members of society, which is crucial for the achievement of any single of the eight Millennium Development Goals.
Theoretical concepts of SD can provide useful frameworks to assess the interactions between SD and RE. SD addresses concerns about relationships between human society and nature. Traditionally, SD has been framed in the three-pillar model—Economy, Ecology, and Society—allowing a schematic categorization of development goals, with the three pillars being interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Within another conceptual framework, SD can be oriented along a continuum between the two paradigms of weak sustainability and strong sustainability. The two paradigms differ in assumptions about the substitutability of natural and human-made capital. RE can contribute to the development goals of the three-pillar model and can be assessed in terms of both weak and strong SD, since RE utilization is defined as sustaining natural capital as long as its resource use does not reduce the potential for future harvest.