The Global Pursuit of Energy: Does Health and Well-Being Follow?
Written By: Leila Khalid
Edited By: Vanessa Lu Langley
Energy has been a critical aspect of human development over time, allowing people to live longer and more comfortably in their everyday lives. Energy consumption has widely been used as an indicator of a country’s development, and access to cheap and abundant energy is often associated with a high quality of life. With this energy usage, however, comes significant burdens, both on the environment and on human health. The negative consequences of unbridled energy use on our finite planet has led some scholars to question: how much energy do we really need to sustain a happy and healthy life?
The Dangers of Energy Production
No matter the type of energy use, there are negative effects from their production. Historically, the most commonly used sources of energy, yet also the most destructive, are the fossil fuels: petroleum, coal, and natural gas. These sources of energy contribute considerably to climate change: their combustion releases significant amounts of pollutants, most notably CO2 (Steinberger, 2016). Although climate change is a catalyst for many long-term health effects, the production of fossil fuels also has direct and immediate effects on people’s health.
Coal is a prime example of the dangers of producing fossil fuels. It provides about a third of all electricity generation across the globe, and remains a prevalent resource for the iron and steel industries (IEA, 2022). However, both surface and underground mining of coal pose great threats to workers, from risk of serious injury to persistent dust inhalation. Not only is the initial mining and processing dangerous, but the combustion of coal poses the largest health risks (Smith et al., 2013). When coal is burned, pollutants such as CO2, mercury, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter (PM) are produced and distributed through the air (Fisher, n.d.). This means the pollutants are able to travel across space, thereby affecting a much greater number of people. These toxins carry a high burden of disease, and can lead to conditions such as asthma, black lung disease (pneumoconiosis), and cancers. Many of these diseases are chronic, debilitating workers and potentially their families for the rest of their lives (Smith et al., 2013).
One of the most pressing health issues today relates to the 2.6 billion people who use unclean cooking fuels in their homes, which ultimately leads to several million premature deaths every year (Benshoff, 2022). The use of energy sources such as coal, biomass, and kerosene to cook indoors without proper ventilation leads to wasted energy and the emission of dangerous toxins. These toxins, specifically PM and carbon monoxide, are extremely concentrated and enclosed when released inside. In fact, PM from indoor smoke can amount to 100 times the acceptable level for safe air (WHO, 2022). It is also important to note that these deaths are not distributed evenly, with women and children in developing countries enduring most of the exposure due to spending a disproportionate amount of time in the kitchen and at home (Whiting, 2021). This concerning health inequity has led to innovation regarding low-cost alternatives. Solar cooking, which utilizes mirrored surfaces to harness the sun’s energy, as well as the transition to liquified petroleum gas have been methods used to reduce household cooking pollution (Whiting, 2021).
Pathways linking energy to health (Smith et al., 2013)
Although fossil fuels were relatively inexpensive and a very reliable source of energy, our growing understanding of the climatic and health effects of their production have led to increasing support for renewable energy sources. While it is true that wind, solar, biofuels, and hydroelectric energy sources produce far less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels, they still have impacts that must be properly managed and controlled, as seen in the diagram above (Smith et al., 2013). Noise pollution from turbines and ecological disruption from hydroelectric dams pose the greatest health concerns (Jaiswal, 2022). Ultimately, the array of negative health effects that are derived from our growing global energy consumption displays how we must be conscious and deliberate with how we use our energy.
Energy Efficiency and Conservation
In order to combat these negative consequences and make the most out of our energy systems, energy efficiency has become a popular method in maintaining comfortable lifestyles. Energy efficiency occurs when less energy is used to produce an otherwise equal result (Smith et al., 2013). Common energy efficiency techniques include building retrofitting and increased battery longevity in electric vehicles (IEA, n.d.; Reid, 2022). Not only would this prevent many of the health effects associated with traditional energy consumption, it can also be cost-effective as energy bills are lowered. However, relying solely on energy efficiency is not as simple a solution as it may seem, given the possible “rebound effects,” such as increased consumer demand due to lower prices (Smith et al., 2013).
Another alternative, that may seem unappealing to those who do not wish to change their lifestyle, is the concept of energy conservation, or reducing the amount of energy spent in general. This can be implemented on an individual-level, such as turning off the lights in your house, or can happen on a broader governmental scale. However, this technique can only be used in countries that have energy to spare. Moreover, simply having a basic, minimal amount of energy remains a pressing issue for hundreds of millions of people (Benshoff, 2022). Thus, there are growing concerns about how our energy systems and sources must be distributed in order to support the health of people globally.
Human Development Index and Energy Consumption
A common method used to determine the development and prosperity of a particular country is to use the Human Development Index (HDI). This measurement considers three components: health, education, and standard of living (UNDP, n.d.). HDI is by no means a comprehensive measurement of development or success, as it does not include any statistics on issues such as poverty or inequality. However, HDI is deemed a more holistic measure due to its incorporation of health and education, as opposed to merely focusing on aspects such as GDP.
The chart below shows the relationship between HDI and per capita primary power consumption for countries across the world. There is a strong correlation for countries with lower HDI to consume quite low amounts of energy per person. This means that small increases in energy consumption tend to coincide with large increases of HDI. However, this pattern eventually tapers off, with HDI increasing at a much smaller rate as energy consumption continues to increase (Dale, 2014). For example, a country such as Iceland uses far more energy per person, yet has around the same HDI as a country such as Germany. If energy consumption no longer correlates with increasing HDI, why is so much energy usage even necessary?
Source: (Dale, 2014)
Researchers would argue that it isn’t necessary at all. A 2022 study conducted at Stanford University found that countries that use high amounts of energy per capita, such as Canada, could reduce their consumption without reducing their residents’ well-being (Garthwaite, 2022).
The study showed that annual energy use between 10 to 75 gigajoules per capita was the tipping point where energy was no longer associated with increases in life expectancy, food supply, infant mortality, or sanitation (Garthwaite, 2022). Furthermore, other aspects such as happiness and prosperity also peaked around this benchmark of energy consumption (Benshoff, 2022). To compare, the US uses around 284 gigajoules of energy per capita – almost 4 times the basic requirement suggested by the Stanford study (Benshoff, 2022). The largest percentage of this energy usage goes to transportation, from both land and air travel (Roberts, 2020).
Clearly, there is a distinct and growing inequality in energy access and consumption across the world, which leaves many still without basic needs while others are jet-setting across the world. About 759 million people still live without electricity, which many consider to be a modern yet basic human right (Benshoff, 2022). For people’s health and well-being, action must be taken toward energy redistribution, efficiency, and conservation on a global scale.
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