Sustainable development is driven by the notion that the needs of the present should be met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (report Our Common Future) described key elements of sustainability in the energy context: the ability to increase the supply of energy to meet growing human needs, energy efficiency and conservation, public health and safety, and "protection of the biosphere and prevention of more localized forms of pollution."
Although there is no single definition of sustainability, three pillars have come to be seen as essential to sustainable development, and thus to sustainable forms of energy:
- ○ Environment (criteria include low or zero carbon emissions, avoidance or minimisation of air and water pollution and negative impacts on biodiversity)
- ○ Economy (cost and affordability of energy, reliability of energy supplies, effects on jobs associated with energy production and use, etc.)
- ○ Society (energy security and long-term availability of energy to sustain societal needs)
In this context, the Platform considers sustainable energy to refer to the development and use of renewable energy sources and efforts to increase the efficiency with which energy is used.
Owing to the diversity of organisational mandates, not all Platform members have adopted a formal definition of what, in the context of their work, constitutes renewable energy. IRENA, as the international agency tasked with promoting the widespread adoption and sustainable use of all forms of renewable energy, includes the following sources in its work: bioenergy, geothermal, hydropower, ocean, solar and wind energy. This includes applications at different scales, in the context of both “modern” energy use (in industrialised economies) and energy access.