Which Energy Source Is The Most Dangerous/Harmful, & Which Is Safest?

This is a short guide outlining:

– which energy sources might be the most dangerous

– and which might be the safest


We’ve compared these sources against different metrics and indicators such as air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and more. 


Summary – Most Dangerous/Harmful, & Safest Energy Sources

Danger and harm from different energy sources can come in several forms – disease health problems, diseases/illness, death, or the increased risk of harm one way or another

Energy sources can cause danger or harm in various ways such as the emission of air contaminants leading to air pollution (and poor air quality), and greenhouse gas emissions leading to climate change and global warming – just as two major examples

According to several sources, nuclear energy appears to be safest form of energy, along with renewables like solar and wind

Brown coal, and black coal appear to be the most dangerous/harmful, with oil second most harmful


*It’s important to note that energy sources being used in different geographic locations might pose different levels of harm.

Just one example is a coal plant using air pollutant catching technology in one city vs another city that doesn’t use this technology.

It’s also important to note that an energy source might be harmful in a particular area due to the volume of that energy source being burnt, but, that energy source might be much safer if burnt in smaller quantities.

For example, huge population dense cities may just emit far more volume of air contaminants due to fossil fuel burning compared to smaller less population dense cities.

*Also, it’s important to date that whilst a fuel source may be ‘harmful’ in one sense, it may also be beneficial in another by providing cheap electricity, providing jobs and helping grow economies.

There’s also some question over deaths and conditions attributable to air pollution from fossil fuels like coal.

Some argue that it’s too difficult to separate pre existing conditions and the impact of air pollution caused by coal power plants, or even smog from vehicles.

In addition, some reports even claim that pollution from fossil fuels is overstated or over exaggerated in some cities and regions.


Deaths Caused By Different Energy Sources Per X Amount Of Electricity Produced

Deaths per 1000 TWh (tera watt hours) generated are:

Coal – 100,000 (deaths per 1000 TWh produced)

Oil – 36,000

Gas – 4000

Hydro – 1400 (skewed by Banqiao dam collapse)

Solar (rooftop solar only) – 440

Wind – 150

Nuclear – 90 (includes nuclear power plant incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima. In 2018, nuclear provides about 11% of the world’s electricity from about 450 power reactors, generating about 2,500 TWh of electricity each year)

– visualcapitalist.com


Energy Sources & Air Pollution

The rate of short-term deaths from accidents and air pollution related to energy production, standardised to the deaths resultant from the production of one terawatt-hour (TWh) of energy are:

Brown Coal – 32.72 (deaths per terawatt hour produced)

Coal – 24.62

Oil – 18.43

Biomass – 4.63

Gas – 2.82

Nuclear – 0.07

Air-pollution related deaths are dominant [in the above data].

In the case of brown coal, coal, oil and gas, they account for greater than 99% of deaths, as well as 70% of nuclear-related deaths, and all biomass-related deaths.

Cancer from radioactive exposure is also taken into account in the above data.

*Note – One terawatt-hour is roughly equivalent to the annual energy consumption of 12,400 US citizens

– ourworldindata.org


Hypothetically, if all energy production in the world was met through one energy source in 2014, the number of deaths from each energy source might have been:

Brown Coal – 5.3 million (deaths)

Coal – 3.91 million

Oil – 2.93 million

Biomass – 736,170

Gas – 448,539

Nuclear – 11,776

– ourworldindata.org


Other Notes On Energy Sources & Air Pollution

Coal-fired power plants are a key source of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, key precursors to ozone and particulate matter (PM) pollution (ourworldindata.org)

Air pollution in kills 4,400 people daily in China alone (visualcapitalist.com)


Energy Sources, Greenhouse Gas Emissions & Impact On Climate Change/Global Warming

Energy consumption is one of the main activities that emits greenhouse gases.

There’s a few different ways to measure and track greenhouse gas emissions from different energy sources, such as:

– total emissions from each energy source

– emissions, in kg of CO2, per Mega watt hour of electricity produced

– emissions during the lifecycle of the energy source e.g. from manufacture, the set up, to operation, to decommissioning and waste


Total emissions from each energy source

Globally, annual per year C02 emissions by fuel source, measured in billions of tonnes per year, in 2013, are:

Solid Fuel (Coal) – 15.15 (Bt)

Liquid (Oil) – 11.79

Gas (Natural Gas) – 6.62

Cement Production – 2.03

Gas Flaring – 249.36 (Millions of tonnes)

– Ourworldindata.org


Note, that each country differs with the energy sources that emit the most greenhouse gases.

Different sectors also have different dominant gases that are emitted.


Emissions, in kg of CO2, per Mega watt hour of electricity produced

Carbon dioxide emissions, in kg of CO2 produced per mega watt hour, are:

Charcoal – 403.2 kg CO2

Coke – 385.2 kg CO2

Oil Shale and Tar Sands – 385.2 kg CO2

Peat – 381.6 kg CO2

Lignite – 363.6 kg CO2

Anthracite – 353.88 kg CO2

Sub Bituminous Coal – 345.96 kg CO2

Bitumen – 290.52 kg CO2

Diesel Oil – 266.76 kg CO2

Crude Oil – 263.88 kg CO2

Shale Oil – 263.88 kg CO2

Aviation Gasoline – 252 kg CO2

Jet Gasoline – 252 kg CO2

Motor Gasoline – 249.48 kg CO2

Natural Gas –  201.96 kg CO2

– ourworldindata.org


Emissions during the lifecycle of the energy source

The Life cycle CO2 equivalent (including albedo effect) from selected electricity supply technologies .. arranged by gCO2eq per kWh (CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour of electricity supplied) in median values … are:

Coal – 820 (median gCO2eq per kWh)

Biomass (co-firing with coal) – 740

Gas (combined cycle) – 490

Biomass (dedicated) – 230

Solar PV (utility scale) – 48

Solar PV (rooftop) – 41

Geothermal – 38

Concentrated Solar Power – 27

Hydropower – 24

Wind Offshore – 12

Nuclear – 12

Wind Onshore – 11

– wikipedia.org


You can also check out this guide to see the lifecycle carbon footprint of different energy production sources in the UK (such as conventional coal combustion, and newer gasification plants.


Another note to make is that sometimes natural gas GHG emission calculations do not include the leakage of methane when it is extracted.

Some sources note that the carbon footprint of natural gas can be similar to coal in some instances when this is taken into account, as opposed to just the burning of both fuel sources.


Other Factors To Consider When Assessing Danger & Safety Of Different Energy Sources

Deaths associated with mining fuel resources e.g. coal and oil mining

How waste is treated, managed and disposed of – particularly radioactive and nuclear waste

Operational accidents at power plants e.g. nuclear explosions and associated radioactive exposure for years after, dam collapses for hydroelectricity

Indirect harm from factors such as water pollution (caused indirectly by acid rain – which air contaminants from fossil fuel power plants and petroleum and diesel vehicles contribute to). In addition to water pollution, there can be other environmental issues that arise indirectly from the use of fossil fuels that can ultimately negatively impact humans


theguardian.com echoes the above results:

In terms of raw numbers of deaths, coal is the most dangerous source of energy for workers

In terms of deaths by energy output, coal is probably the most dangerous

Coal kills thousand upon thousands of workers each year with a combination of terrible regulation of mining practices, inherent danger and bronchus invading dust

– theguardian.com


Energy Source Breakdown (in %) Of Global Primary Energy Supply

As a point of interest, the following energy sources provided these %’s of the world’s primary energy supply in 2015:

Oil – 31.7%

Coal – 28.1%

Natural Gas – 21.6%

Nuclear 4.9%

Hydro – 2.5%

Solar – less than 1%

Wind – less than 1%

– visualcapitalist.com


You can read more about how each specific country gets it’s energy or electricity from different energy sources in this guide.



1. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/worlds-safest-source-energy/

2. https://ourworldindata.org/what-is-the-safest-form-of-energy

3. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/may/15/most-dangerous-form-of-energy-coal

4. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/energy-sources-energy-mix-by-country-where-major-countries-in-the-world-get-their-energy-from/

5. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/how-much-carbon-greenhouse-gas-each-energy-electricity-production-source-emits-carbon-footprint/

6. https://ourworldindata.org/fossil-fuels

7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life-cycle_greenhouse-gas_emissions_of_energy_sources

8. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/summary-greenhouse-gas-emissions-worldwide-globally-past-present-future/

9. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/how-much-carbon-greenhouse-gas-each-energy-electricity-production-source-emits-carbon-footprint/

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