New Research Questions Societal Benefit of Fossil Fuels

Amy Westervelt talks with University of Leeds researcher Julia Steinberger about her provocative new study, which calls into question some long-held beliefs about the benefits that fossil fuels have delivered to society.

by | Apr 7, 2020

In the latest episode of the Drilled podcast, Julia Steinberger, a professor of social ecology and ecological economics at the University of Leeds, talks with Amy Westervelt about her provocative new study, which calls into question some long-held beliefs about the benefits that fossil fuels have delivered to society.

In “Your money or your life? The carbon-development paradox”, published on March 27 in the journal Environmental Research Letters, Steinberger and colleagues analyzed the impacts of using fossil fuels for energy on both economic growth and human well-being. They found, among other things, that while fossil fuel use has certainly helped increase the globe’s gross domestic product, it has had no effect on life expectancy.


Amy Westervelt Welcome back to Drilled. I’m Amy Westervelt. Today, we’re digging into one of the big reasons fossil fuel companies can get away with bad behavior. The story they tell about how critical they are to our quality of life. One researcher has been doing a lot to debunk that idea recently.

Julia Steinberger Julia Steinberger, professor of social ecology and ecological economics at the University of Leeds.

AW Dr. Steinberger has had a few really interesting papers published in the last few months. You might have seen the coverage of her study that found that wealthy people at the largest energy footprints. Maybe that’s no surprise. But there were some really interesting findings in terms of how those energy footprints get to be so big. Mainly because they spend more on transport, cars, boats, planes, vacations, all the most energy intensive things. Another key finding in that study was around inequality. In a nutshell, the energy inequality gap grows even faster than the wealth gap that feeds into the study we’re gonna focus on today, which found that fossil fuel use has very little impact on life expectancy. All of it contradicts a lot of the narratives Big Oil has been telling for the past century and points to the fact that a redistribution of energy consumption would be good for both the planet and human health. We’ll hear more from Dr. Steinberger about all of that after a quick message from this episode’s sponsor.

JS So if there’s an economic growth cure the like, we need more cars or automotive capacity, more roads because we’re preparing for growth. You need us to be ready for what’s coming. Right. An economic downturn. It’s like you need to pour money into our industry because we’re the industry that’s going to restart the economy. And the reality is they will die if there’s no growth. The underlying reality is they want more subsidies all the time.

AW One of the fossil fuel industry’s key talking points is that removing fossil fuels is basically an attack on the poor. So I’m curious to have you sort of talk through the ways that your research sort of challenges the idea that you can’t tackle climate change without disadvantaging the poor.

JS Yes. The way I came across this research topic was a bit by accident because I was really researching a lot of people do, which is can we decouple economic activity and economic growth from fossil fuel use? When I was just looking through international data, one of the pieces of international data that was available at the time going back I was interested in several decades back was the Human Development Index and that has GDP and life expectancy and education indicators in it.

And so I basically use that by sort of breaking it apart.

And what I found was that the different components of GDP were decoupling quite slowly, but these other components were decoupling very fast. And that was really interesting because that wasn’t reflected anywhere, including in things around what the economy is doing.

There’s always this assumption that what the economy is doing is contributing to the general good, that an average GDP per capita contributes to the general good. And so I decided to look into that more. And what we’re seeing is that other things play a huge role. So that it’s not just the amount of energy that’s consumed or the number of dollars circulating in the economy. That is really what the purpose of that is. And even more importantly, what are the social policies in terms of social welfare, protection, guarantees of sanitation, clean water, all of that stuff? Those are the things that are really the bedrock that underpin this. And so what we see is we see the effects of good public policy and health measures over time are much more important than what either the economy or bulky energy are doing. And so that very much goes against one of the main justifications that the fossil fuel industry uses to sort of prop up its itself. So it’s an industry that, as you’ve been talking about a lot, cares very much about its public persona because its public persona has very bad aspects to it. So it’s bad for labor rights. It’s bad for environmental justice in the communities that lives close to its facilities and infrastructure. It’s bad globaly in terms of planetary destruction. It’s bad locally in terms of places where different disasters happen. It’s bad locally in cities where people suffer from air pollution. So it has a whole raft of negatives at all different kinds of scales and types of effects around the world. But it’s trying to present a positive view of itself as propping up the economy, as being the grubby, dirty giant that’s holding all of our activities. And what it it turns out that that’s not true either, you know, that that that thing that they have to cling on to, which is the last thing that they can cling onto, is we are holding up the fort for all of you. Turns out not at all to be as true as they make it out to be. And if I’m not mistaken, we don’t know this yet, but we always learn these things too late. They might very well have the science and their own evidence that shows that fossil fuels are not necessarily for our well-being, social function or quality of life.

They might already have that information. So for them, you know, they feel they’ve been ahead of the game and climate. They’ve been ahead of the game in lots of different arenas of scientific, you know, scientific knowledge of what their industry does and doesn’t do. They might be ahead of the game here as well. But this is one of the stories that they’ve still been able to cling on to because nobody’s really been putting the pieces together to say, no, this isn’t true.

And so that’s one of the things we’re trying to do with this research is say, OK, what’s good, what’s a good life, what’s necessary to live well, how does energy. How do fossil fuels contribute to it? And the answer is really not that much. And it falls out of the numbers. So I’ve been attacked a lot by people saying, oh, you’re just wrong, you’re just presenting your biases. But honestly, this result falls out of the data. And I don’t care if you’re left, right, center, pink or purple or anything, you can’t see a different result come out of the data.

AW Fossil fuels have been connected to GDP. And then, you know, you’re showing that GDP is only responsible for it most. Twenty nine percent of life expectancy improvement. So, Julia, are you questioning trickle down economics?

JS Yeah, exactly. And so I think that this is one of the things that was really one of the most shocking results to me. And it was keeping up at night. I tried every which way. We tried multiple different methods. But it’s there, which is depending on how you measure it, you get a completely different result. We see different results come out if you measure internationally traded GDP, which is the stuff we normally measure, market exchange rate. So if the trading dollar is on the international exchange, how much is your economy worth? How much is your income worth? That plays a much smaller role than the 30 percent that that way of measuring GDP plays a much smaller role in explaining life expectancy increases than purchasing power parity GDP. And the two are different free developing economies, mainly by the time your economy is industrialized. There’s pretty much no daylight between the two. So what we’re seeing with the dollar is that count, which are the dollars that allow poor people in their own countries to buy stuff matter a lot because I can explain about half of it. Then the dollars that are the dollars that are making the global economy go for the purpose of rich people. Right. So it’s not trickle down economics. What we’re seeing is certain types of industries being associated with certain types of international trade and profit making, which benefit a few multinational corporations. And you see it, the profits sort of going to the top. Right. So this was the circumstance by with wealth accumulation. You know, as Oxfam has showed, upwards of 80 percent of the international economic growth accrues to the top 2 percent of wealth owners. So that economy that the fossil fuel industry is participating in is the economy where the wealth accrues to the top and the benefits do not reach everybody else. The growth in fossil fuels can explain three quarters of the increase in that GDP. So they’re contributing to that, not to life expectancy rates.

AW OK. And then I want to talk about the residential electricity use. So you point out in this paper a few ways to decouple carbon based energy from residential electricity in the form of renewable energy, energy efficiency and shifts in consumption pattern. If I were like a fossil fuel comms guy looking at this paper, I would glom onto this residential electricity thing and say, ‘see! we are important to wellbeing!’. But what you’re saying here is that residential electricity does not mean necessarily carbon-based energy, nor does it even have to be the same level of consumption that it is today.

JS And that’s another part of the research I’m doing. We’re actually looking at the energy requirements of decent living standards. This is based on work by NRC, my real professor at Yale University. So very much based on his work. The idea is to say how much energy is required for decent living standards, especially developing countries where there’s a lot of deprivation. But even in the U.K. or in the US there, people living in energy poverty. So what is necessary to live comfortably and in a healthy way and then try to understand what the technologies and infrastructures that would allow that to happen at a low energy use level would be because the point here is that we distinguish in our analysis between the energy you pay for like at the energy meter and the energy services you get for it. So the energy services would be, for instance, a comfortable environment in terms of not too hot, not too cold thermal comfort. That’s an energy service. But you can achieve thermal comfort by just having the building that’s well designed so you can get along way without using any energy whatsoever. If you use the right kind of surroundings and infrastructure and technologies. And so that’s one of the things that we’re looking at right now. We have a global model where we do that. This is not published yet. But the point is you can achieve decent living energy at a fraction of the energy use currently being used, especially in countries like the US, but also globally.

So then it becomes a question of what is the right technology to use. And the point here is these are not fossil fuel technologies at all to use like L.E.D. lights or housing insulation or making sure that people’s south facing windows have plenty of shade or that the shade can be removed if it’s winter and they need more heat in their house. So these are absolutely not fossil fuel technologies. They don’t have to compete with fossil fuel materials like plastic either. And they can really enable people to live in very high quality, very healthy lives with no fossil fuel use whatsoever. The other thing we really challenge in my research and research that your colleagues are doing is this idea that we need to be comparing renewable energy at the primary energy level. So I don’t know if you’re familiar with energy accounting. You probably are the fossil fuel companies. I really insisted on being compared at the level where they look good primary energy, which is the energy extracted from the environment. Right now it’s been 80 percent and practically 12:06 alive, huge, huge fraction of the primary energy we use globally, which is growing all the time. Is 80 percent fossil fuels. But the problem with that, that basically anybody in energy studies knows is that that’s a crap level way of looking at energy use for social benefit or for economic benefit, even because of two reasons. One is fossil fuels are massively, massively inefficient. Almost every single use of fossil fuels in the economy. Has this huge loss between extraction and actual final energy delivered like electricity, so fossil fuels quickly have two thirds losses before they can be transformed into something we actually want, like electricity and. So, of course, the fossil fuel companies want to be compared at that level as opposed to the level of the stuff we actually it which is, you know, electricity or petrol use in cars or diesel use in cars, massively, massively inefficient technology. Again, it’s around a third of the energy burned up that makes it into motive power for the car. So we’re talking about very, very inefficient ways to translate energy from what they take out of the ground into what we actually use. Right. And interestingly, renewable technologies and electricity based technologies do not have these inefficiencies at all. So a lot of renewable based technologies just to deliver immediately electricity. Now, on that basis, they’re going to look bad from a primary energy perspective because they’re not bulked up by this two thirds waste factor. But on a final energy basis, they look great because they’re just delivering electricity directly or they’re delivering heat directly or they’re delivering motive powers to cars directly through electrification, through electricity, batteries. So one of the things we’re doing here is we’re really trying to start doing this research where we say, actually, we’re not going to play on your field anymore. We’re going to play on the field of what actually matters to people. Electricity and electricity and houses matters to people. You’re not going to get twice the benefit if used twice as much electricity in your house. But having someone consuming a reasonable amount, that’s going to matter. It doesn’t have to come from fossil fuels at all. So the point is that the renewable energy that can replace fossil fuels in delivering sufficient electricity is a fraction of what the fossil fuel use for electricity is. And that’s one of the reasons we see this huge disconnect between fossil fuels, which are Metro’s carbon emissions in my study and know outcomes as life expectancy compared to electricity is because they’re massively inefficient. There’s a huge disconnect there. And you can make electricity any number of other ways that are much more efficient and much cleaner.

AW There was this line in your intro and I think in the conclusion of the paper to a strong correlation between emissions and human development at one point in time does not imply that there, dynamics are coupled in the long term. Can you talk a little bit about times where the correlation was strong and you know how long it’s been since there was such a period?

JS It’s more contrasting than that. The correlation is always strong. Now, there might come a time when the correlation is not strong, but we’re not there yet. If you take a snapshot of the world and you compare, you know, living standards, life expectancy with energy use, primary energy use, even the correlation is decent. It’s relatively good. But that doesn’t mean that one causes the other because, you know, we have all these examples and autistics like, you know, the number of pirates versus skull’s is highly correlated. But the pirate are the squirrels bringing pirates. You know, you have all these things that experience correlations because, you know, maybe they both come out on sunny days and that’s why they’re correlated. In this case, I would argue that the correlation is in a historical legacy that the countries that got started catch go going in both directions with sort of an advance. And so they kept going together. But would you see when you look at what can cause a what? Over time and again, we can’t prove causation because from a statistics perspective, the math is where you can prove causation. They’re very rare. We can’t, but we can certainly disprove it. So what we can do is we can conclusively put it in a coffin, bang the lid, chat with big old nails, saying fossil fuel use does not contribute significantly to improvements in life expectancy. So causation is disproven. So the idea that there’s this industrial underpinning, you know, this idea of the grubby titan who sort of holding up the industrial basis for the rest of us, that is disproven by the study. We do not lie on fossil fuels for improvements in our living standards. And there’s several reasons for that. But you could think of. One is because we have alternatives. So there is an alternative, actually. And several the other is we have in several cases built up infrastructure like we’re not like in the early days of the Roman Empire. And we don’t have any roads. We have things like roads and train tracks and stuff. We have legacy infrastructure. Right.

So that’s one reason. And the third reason is because technology is improving on the demand side. So on the demand side, we can now get a lot more for a lot less, which again means that the industrial reliance we have is more on high technology. It’s more on information technology or things like that that allows us to manage things more efficiently and on things like L.E.D. lighting and other stuff than it is on these particular fuels. So these particular fuels, you just can’t really see the effect anymore.

AW That’s all really important to keep in mind in the context of the current situation. Oil and gases and this is an industry in need of a bail out, but it makes less and less economic sense every month. It’s had a lot less positive impact on the public than it pretends to have had. And it’s setting us on a collision course with extinction. In an upcoming episode, we’ll talk about how the industry has inflated its jobs numbers for years. So that popular narrative also turns out to be a lie. And the oil industry will eventually leave the public with the mess of thousands of abandoned wells and drill sites. It’s the public that needs bailing out, really, not the oil industry.

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Amy Westervelt is the editor-in-chief of Drilled News, creator and host of the Drilled podcast, and founder of the Critical Frequency podcast network, named AdWeek's Podcast Network of the Year in 2019. An award-winning print and audio journalist, Amy has contributed to The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as well as KQED, The California Report, Capital Public Radio, and many other outlets. She is the 2015 winner of the Rachel Carson award for "women greening journalism," and a 2016 winner of an Edward R. Murrow award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. In 2019, the Drilled podcast won the Online News Association's "Excellence in Audio Storytelling" award.