Biases and misconceptions often surround the energy transition. In this series of articles, I’ll take a closer look at some of the conclusions reached and underrepresented facts pertaining to the energy transition to address the tension often accompanied by these conversations, making room for more balanced and constructive dialogue.
Part 1: The energy transition and the path to a healthy environment
Worldwide, one of the biggest crises we face today is climate change. This is an important challenge we must address, and it’s widely understood that the energy transition has a massive role to play in combating climate change. While the benefits of the energy transition have recently been centered on climate change, it also has a positive impact on wider environmental concerns and the well-being of all people. With the current intensity of the climate change discussion, these benefits can easily be overlooked.
I want to take a moment to reflect on the benefits, specifically the health benefits, that we can all gain from a speedy energy transition. First, let us consider the health issues that exist due to environmental pollution and burning fossil fuels.
The toll on our health
The WHO currently estimates that 99% of the global population are exposed to air pollution levels that put them at increased risk for diseases including heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancer, and pneumonia. Additional data on environmental pollution and its effects paint a truly sobering picture:
- In 2021, the Global Burden of Disease study (GBD) reported that 5 million people died prematurely from outdoor air pollution in 2019
- The GBD study also found that in 2019, 2.3 million died from indoor air pollution
- The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) reported in 2021 that 350,000 premature deaths in 2018 in the United States were attributed to fossil fuel-related air
- The EESI also found that the annual cost of the health impacts of fossil fuel-generated electricity in the United States is estimated to be up to $886.5 billion
- In addition to the 50B metric tons of greenhouse gases emitted globally every year, numerous scientific studies have linked particulate matter (also called particle pollution) emitted from power plants, industries and automobiles to a variety of problems, including premature death in people with heart or lung disease, aggravated asthma and increased respiratory symptoms.
It’s clear that in order to address these issues, there’s a real imperative for the global energy industry to work together as a community to do better to reduce the emissions and pollution that affect our health.
The health benefits of renewables
Our current energy transition is driven by renewables. It’s gaining traction, with global renewable energy consumption increasing from 8.7% in 2006 to 11.2% in 2019, and driven by mandates such as the 2015 Paris Agreement and the 2021 US mandate for 80% carbon-free electricity by 2030.
The numbers bear out the health advantages of renewables. In 2021, a team of environmental researchers projected that the health co-benefits (improvements to air quality and health) per unit of CO2-reduced and renewable energy deployed would exceed the costs by approximately one-third. That’s a positive shift.
And the environmental advantages afforded by electric vehicles (EVs)? Fully electric vehicles have no tailpipe emissions but what about the emissions associated with generating electricity to charge EVs, sometimes referred to as upstream emissions? The EPA states that EVs typically have a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline cars, even when accounting for the electricity used for charging. So, as more renewables are used to generate electricity to charge EVs, the emissions associated with EVs could be even lower, and this evolution is not possible with internal combustion engine vehicles.
Decreasing the use of fossil fuels in transportation and electricity generation will result in cleaner skies, fresher air, and better health for all of us—and in particular, for those exposed to higher levels of air pollution and least able to afford to mitigate the effects of it.
Addressing carbon is just the beginning
Our carbon-based energy economy presents enormous challenges. We know about climate change, and that it’s a critical issue. We know there is also a significant impact specifically from pollution—and this point is often overlooked in the current conversation on the energy transition. And while carbon capture will be part of the climate change solution, we should not ignore the point that this technology will not provide the pollution avoidance and health advantages gained by not burning fossil fuels in the first place.
While there are a lot of great things in this transition for everyone, we know it won’t be easy. As we’re thinking about what we need to do to bring all stakeholders along on the journey with us, we must not lose sight that in addition to lowering carbon emissions, there are real health benefits the energy transition will enable for all of us, and that makes the energy transition an even more compelling solution than the current conversation suggests.
In Part 2 of this series, I advocate for a cooperative and collaborative relationship between the renewables sector and fossil fuels stakeholders with an “all fuels on deck” approach.