Energy and Climate: The Dilemma, Trilemma, and Quadrilemma

By guest author, Dr Tedd Moya Mose, Oxford Martin Fellow at Oxford University’s Martin Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy.

Contributions by ICPAC Climate Change Technical Working Group

This article aims at highlighting three broad conceptions of how the global energy industry has a direct relationship with the climate. This energy-climate union is fraught with some peculiar problems. Broadly, these issues are: the dilemma, the trilemma and the quadrilemma. ‘Why is this important?’, one may ask. It is only by understanding the main problems in this relationship that one may propose suitable pathways for resolving them. The last two (the trilemma and quadrilemma) also act as frameworks for resolving the main challenges posed by energy systems around the world.

The Dilemma

The energy industry has been the cause of economic transformations and also socio-economic and ecological problems. Electricity and modern energy services have transformed humanity. In generously broad terms, energy can be interpreted as the power that enables people and things to effectively transform or transport things and persons. In the last half-century, the link between energy and global economic growth has been evident (1). However, energy and economic development lead to increased greenhouse gases (GHGs) emission, especially carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. (2). Burning fossil fuels (3) increases the concentration of CO2, the most abundant Greenhouse Gas in the atmosphere, leading to global warming (4). This warming has caused at least seven unprecedented climate conditions in recent history (5). These records are likely to be progressively broken in the coming years (6); making climate change ‘the greatest energy-related externality of all time’ (7). ‘The climate emergency’ was named the word of the year in 2019 (8). So, the dilemma is this. Energy has the confounding characteristic as a force of both human progress and ecological destruction. The predicament is the clash between the rising global energy demand and the need to radically reduce CO2 emissions. This dilemma has led to calls for increased integration of more sustainable (renewable) energy sources in global energy systems.

The Trilemma

The “energy trilemma” (9), was coined by the World Energy Council (10), and is a succinct summary of the most pressing international problems that involve energy and climate change (11). There are several variations of the definition of the energy trilemma. However, they all address three fundamental challenges: those emanating from economics (affordability), politics (energy security or security of energy supply) and the environment (including climate change and sustainability) (12). Recently, energy accessibility has been added in the case of developing countries. Having seen the role energy plays in climate change above, resolving the energy trilemma is complex. First, despite causing global warming there is still substantial global reliance on fossil fuels for energy (13). Projections are not encouraging either. Fossil fuels supply about 85% of global primary energy and may still form about 74% of the mix in 2040 (14).

Meanwhile, the UN Global Goals on affordable and Clean Energy (SDG 7) urge us to change our current reliance on fossil fuels to more sustainable and less harmful ways (15). This goal is commendable but faces practical complexities. Energy that is cheap may not be good for the environment (coal and gas), sustainable may be intermittent, variable and insufficient to power industrial uses (renewable energy), and sustainable energy may not be locally available leading to continued use of fossil fuels for self-reliance (energy security). The ‘Energy Trilemma’ is important because it states both the problem and provides a framework to deliver the energy transformation needed to make sustainable energy systems a reality. How? By ensuring that energy decisions consider these competing interests and are not guided only by profit, financial considerations, or the need for energy self-reliance. On the bright side, advancement in the solar energy sector has also resulted in solar energy being reported as the cheapest electricity in history.

Desert oasis: The plant’s 8 million solar panels power about 160,000 California homes. Photo: Jamey Stillings
Enel Green Power’s Villanueva solar power plant in Mexico. Photo: AFP/Getty

The Quadrilemma

The energy quadrilemma adds the fourth element (of social dimensions of energy) that focuses on people, their involvement, and the acceptance of decisions in the energy industry. This fourth issue concerns itself with providing energy in a just and sustainable way. Generally referred to as ‘energy justice’, it is concerned with identifying when and where injustices occur in energy systems and how best law and policy can respond (16). Conceptualized as having three principal tenets (distributional justice, procedural justice, and recognition justice) (17), it deals with both macro-justice (on societal impacts of energy and how fair and just their institutional decisions are) as well as micro-justice (how individuals are impacted by systemic outcomes) (18). However, as demonstrated above, we still do not have an energy source that fully satisfies the energy trilemma or is clearly socially accepted as ‘justice-neutral’. (19)


So, in order to have more sustainable outcomes in the relationship between energy and climate, various experts need to work together to address the dilemma, trilemma and the global quadrilemma (20). From a law and policy perspective, understanding these three challenges and using the last two to frame future legislation, policy, and regulation are key to stemming the tide of climate change and its devastating effects. From any professional’s perspective, there is no better time than now for concerted interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral collaboration to address energy and climate issues at all levels of governance. This will also help in achieving SDG 7 which aims to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.


[1]*Oxford Martin Fellow at Oxford University’s Martin Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy. See, for example, Rögnvaldur Hannesson, “Energy and GDP growth”, 3 (2) (2009) International Journal of Energy Sector Management, 157–170 confirms the positive relationship between growth in energy use and growth the GDP of 171 countries for the period between 1950 and 2004.

[2] Muhammad Shahbaz, Qazi Muhammad Adnan Hye, Aviral Kumar Tiwari, and Nuno Carlos Leitão, ‘Economic Growth, Energy Consumption, Financial Development, International Trade and CO2 Emissions in Indonesia’, 25 (2013) Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 109–121.

[3] Corinne L. Quere et al, ‘Global Carbon Budget 2017’ 10 (2018) Earth System Science Data, 405, 407.

[4] UN, ‘Climate Change’ (n.d. UN) <> accessed 1 August 2018.

[5] Adam Vaughan, ‘Seven Climate Records Set So Far in 2016’, (17 June 2016) The Guardian, <> accessed 4 July 2018.

[6] Jonathan Watts, ‘Heatwave sees record high temperatures around world this week’, (13 July 2018) The Guardian (US Edition), <> accessed 14 September 2018.

[7] Nicholas Stern (World Bank chief economist) in The Stern Review: Report on the Economics of Climate Change (London, 2006; Cabinet Office — HM Treasury).

[8] Naaman Zhou, ‘Oxford Dictionaries Declares ‘Climate Emergency’ The Word Of 2019’ (21 November 2019) The Guardian, <> accessed 21 November 2019.

[9] The competing interests between economics (energy finance), politics (energy security or security of supply) and the environment (climate change and sustainability).

[10] WEC, ‘2015 Energy Trilemma Index’ (WEC, February 2015) <> accessed 17 January 2020.

[11] Simon Marsden, ‘The “Triangle” of Australian Energy Law and Policy: Omissions, Connections and Evaluating Environmental Effects’ 29 (2017) Journal of Environmental Law, 475.

[12] Raphael Heffron, Darren McCauley, and Benjamin Sovacool, ‘Resolving Society’s Energy Trilemma through the Energy Justice Metric’, 87 (2015) Energy Policy, 168, 169.

[13] EIA, ‘Perspective for Energy Transition: The Role of Energy Efficiency’ (IEA, 2018) accessed 1 August 2018. Fossil fuels contribute to two-thirds of global GHG emissions leading to global warming.

[14] See, IEA, World Energy Outlook (OECD/IEA 2018) <> accessed 22 July 2020.

[15] UN Global Goals, ‘Goals 7: Affordable and Clean Energy’ < and-clean-energy> accessed 28 August 2018.

[16] Raphael J Heffron, Darren McCauley and Benjamin K Sovacool, ‘Resolving Society’s Energy Trilemma Through the Energy Justice Metric’ 87 (2015) Energy Policy, 168.

[17] Benjamin K Sovacool and Michael H Dworkin, Global Energy Justice: Problems, Principles, and Practices (Cambridge University Press 2014), 20.

[18] Darren McCauley et al, ‘Advancing energy justice: the triumvirate of tenets’, 32 (2013) 3, International Energy Law Review, 107–116, 109, 110.

[19] Paul Munroa, Greg van der Horst, & Stephen Healy, ‘Energy Justice for All? Rethinking Sustainable Development Goal 7 Through Struggles Over Traditional Energy Practices in Sierra Leone’, 105 (2017) Energy Policy, 640.

[20] The Herald, ‘Professor Rebecca Lunn: Independent Experts Needed To Help Solve ‘Energy Quadrilemma’’ (The Herald 1 August 2019) <> accessed 19 October 2020.

🌍🛰️ Climate Services, early warnings and Earth Observation for Sustainable Development in Eastern Africa.