Oil and gas companies love to tell us how much we need their products.
“Global demand for energy is rising, driven by growing population with rising living standards,” reads Shell’s website. One now-deleted BP ad said, “the world needs progress, seeking new possibilities everywhere so we can keep powering dreams and ambitions.” The implication is that if we want people to live long, happy lives, they’ll need more access to energy.
But a forthcoming study in the journal Environmental Research Letters, came to pretty different conclusions. The researchers examined the relationship between fossil fuel use and life expectancy across 70 countries between 1971 and 2014. They found that while energy and energy consumption were correlated with life expectancy for countries at any single point in time over that 43 year period, the increase in consumption wasn’t the main reason countries saw an increase in how long people lived. In fact, people’s life expectancy increased by 14 years, but an increase in energy use was only responsible for about a quarter of that increase, or under 4 of those 14 years.
“The easiest way to explain this is a thought experiment: given the relationships we measure from our data, can we measure how much life expectancy would have increased if only fossil fuel emissions had increased? And can we measure how much life expectancy would have increased without any increase in fossil fuel emissions? The total of these two add up to the total change in life expectancy,” Julia K. Steinberger, the study’s lead author, told Earther in an email.
The researchers did find, however, that increased consumption of energy was tied to 90 percent of increase in GDP, which is how economists traditionally measure how well a country is doing economically and, by extension, how well its residents are living. Academics have long debated whether or not it’s possible to increase GDP while reducing carbon emissions emissions.
But the authors argue that GDP is a fundamentally flawed way of measuring well-being because while it measures a country’s economic standing, it doesn’t say anything about how wealth is distributed—or how long and how well residents are living. If what policymakers are actually interested in is how improve people’s lives while decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, the new findings are good news.
“Our results directly counter the claims by fossil fuel companies that their products are necessary for well-being,” the authors say in a statement. “Reducing emissions and primary energy use, while maintaining or enhancing the health of populations, should be possible.”
Economic growth, the authors say, shouldn’t be country’s aim. They argue that people can still have live good lives and rise out of poverty absent fossil fuels or endless growth.
Importantly, even though a country’s total energy use and greenhouse gas emissions weren’t responsible for much of the increase in life expectancy observed between 1971 and 2014, an increase in residential electricity—as in, people’s access to energy use in their own homes for things like turning on lights and cooking with gas—accounted for a 60 percent increase in life expectancy.
“That’s an important piece of this study,” Mark Paul, a political economist at the New College of Florida who studies inequality and environmental economics, told Earther. “There are many low income countries, like in India and Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, where we can see that electrification and basic human needs still aren’t sufficiently met.”
In those countries, Paul said, it doesn’t make sense to stop trying to grow the economy.
“I reject calls for degrowth, or for abandoning economic growth, for low and middle income countries,” he said. “For those countries, the question is, can we de-link growth from an increase in carbon emissions?”
If that’s the question, the study looks promising. And real life bears that out, too, as it increasingly looks like fossil fuels are bad for the economy.
“Renewables have become cost competitive across the board,” said Paul. “So we can very easily improve the human condition—access to basic needs, people’s everyday lives—while limiting increases in emissions.”
Jim Boyce, Senior Fellow Professor Emeritus at the University of Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute, said the author’s findings were “hardly surprising.” Researchers have previously showed that life expectancy increases with energy use (though not fossil fuels as a source of energy in particular, they just happen to be what the world’s economy runs on for now), but as this new research points out, that doesn’t mean fossil fuels are the sole cause of people living longer. And one recent study, he noted, found that air pollution from fossil fuels today lowers life expectancy worldwide by more than one year.
“Clearly, greater use of fossil fuels is not the key to either higher life expectancy or improved well-being,” he told Earther. “The time has come to abandon the antiquated practice of extracting poisonous stuff from under the surface of the Earth and burning for our energy needs. We can and must move as quickly as possible to the clean energy economy of the future.”