The World Energy Council (a UN-accredited organization of over 3000 public, private, government, academic and NGO members from over 90 countries that seeks to facilitate the world’s energy policy dialogue) recently released the fifth edition of its “World Energy Trilemma” report. The goal of the report is to produce a snapshot of energy systems around the world as they are now, in hopes of providing some insight into how we should be forming them for the future – given the increasing global demand for energy and the ongoing challenges in making sustainable energy accessible to all.

WEC’s report is jam-packed with useful information for everyone involved in energy policy discussions, but it includes something new this year – a “balance” ranking of how 129 countries are performing on the energy sustainability “trilemma”. WEC’s Energy Sustainability Index is built upon the idea of the “trilemma” of energy sustainability — the idea that energy sustainability has three components: “energy security”, “energy equity” and “environmental sustainability”. (If you want a deeper understanding of how WEC defines these, take a look here. And Canada has a great balance rank – we’re 6th of 129 countries. We’ve seen this number reported in the press, and it sounds great to be 6th out of 129. But let’s try to understand that 6th place a little better.

Each country is given a score in each of the three areas of the trilemma, and then the three scores are amalgamated into a “balance” score that reflects all three, with a bit of national context thrown in (25% of the balance score comes from national context on such things as political stability, regulatory quality, etc. – more on that here for those interested in how the ranks are built). It’s on this balance score that Canada earns a rank of 6th. But that’s not the whole story — we need to look at the three individual scores to really understand what’s going on. Canada’s ranked first on energy security, second on energy equity, but 60th on environmental sustainability. Let’s pat ourselves on the back for energy security and energy equity performance, but take a look at the reasons our score on environmental sustainability is low.

Environmental sustainability is measured through the use of several data sets and indicators. But key among them are things like CO2 per unit of GDP, effects of air and water pollution and total primary energy intensity — meaning industrialized countries will tend to rank lower than developing countries because of the link between economic activity and emissions. And Canada is geographically large – meaning we have to move people and things (including energy) long distances so we might be expected to use more energy to do so.

But that doesn’t get us off the hook for a 60th place rank. Ranking so well on energy equity and energy security shows us that if the term “trilemma” is accurate (implying that there’s a give and take across the three areas), we could easily give a little in those areas to focus more effort on environmental sustainability. But that’s if you buy into the notion that it’s indeed a trilemma and that these three areas are in opposition to one another. There’s a growing number of people and institutions who recognize that it’s not always an either-or scenario. As a very basic example, take the example of energy efficiency in your home. If we all took simple actions to reduce our own energy use, we’d be helping to improve Canada’s ranking on all three measures.

We’re not going to dramatically improve our environmental sustainability performance through any one action — but if we can look at all the opportunities, we’ll see where we can take actions with little trade-off. At the same time, we can have a discussion about what actions with bigger trade-offs we can be comfortable with, and find ways to mitigate those trade-offs