Our growing dependence on fossil fuels over the past 40 years has not increased life expectancy, new research has suggested.
The study, led by the University of Leeds, looked at different factors to physical health improvements across 70 countries.
Because a country’s energy use is highly correlated with life expectancy at any single point in time, it has generally been assumed that growth in energy use is required for increases in life expectancy.
However, the findings of the new research revealed an unexpected paradox. Whilst energy and fossil fuel emissions were indeed strongly correlated with life expectancy at any single point in time, over a long period they were not found to be closely linked.
Between 1971 and 2014, increases in carbon emissions and primary energy use per person accounted for at most a quarter of the improvements in international life expectancy. International life expectancy improved by 14 years overall, meaning that expanded fossil fuel use and ensuing emissions accounted for less than 4 of these years.
Increases in energy use were, however, tied to 90% of growth in national incomes, measured as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per person.
In the context of the climate crisis and the need to dramatically reduce global energy use, these findings provide reassurance that countries could improve their citizens’ lives without requiring more energy consumption.
Lead author Professor Julia Steinberger, from the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds, said: ‘Increased use of fossil fuels and primary energy may have helped make countries richer, but it was not responsible for much improvement in human health.
‘Our results directly counter the claims by fossil fuel companies that their products are necessary for well-being. Reducing emissions and primary energy use, while maintaining or enhancing the health of populations, should be possible.”
Co-author Dr William Lamb, from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), said: ‘In terms of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, the challenge is to provide affordable, reliable, and clean energy for all, while ensuring that people enjoy open and equitable opportunities to cover their basic needs, such as nutrition, health care, education, safe water, clean air, among others.’