Energy is the cornerstone of our modern society. For most of human civilization, the energy we used was biological: from our bodies and the animals we used (for instance, for plowing in agriculture). We also burned a lot of wood for heating.
Then, some 250 years ago, people started realizing that they can burn something else: fossil fuels; specifically, coal. Coal offers a lot more energy we can use than wood. Fast forward to about 1880, and people also started burning coal for electricity. This usage of fossil fuels, both directly and to produce energy, has been instrumental to our recent evolution as a society. It’s allowed work to become more productive than ever, enabling people in industrialized nations to eventually enjoy much better living conditions than their predecessors. It’s also brought in unprecedented wealth and technology. Essentially, the energy we produce has become central to nearly every major challenge and opportunity the world faces today. It’s hard to overstate just how important energy is for our society.
But this has come at a cost.
Energy generation causes a lot of problems. The first is pollution; the second is accidents; the third is greenhouse gas emissions. Data compiled by Our World in Data shows regardless of what metric you choose, fossil fuel energy is by far the worst.
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Good energy, bad energy
It’s true that fossil fuel energy got us to where we are now. Without it, the past couple of centuries would have been unimaginable. But we’ve reached a point where the problems associated with fossil fuel sources are impossible to ignore. Not only do they produce emissions and cause global warming, but they also claim the most lives.
Here’s another way to look at it, as pointed out by Hannah Ritchie from our Our World in Data. If there was an average town of just over 180,000 people, and that town were to get all its energy from one single source, how many lives would that energy source cost? Here’s a rundown:
- coal would kill 25 people a year;
- oil would kill 18 people a year;
- gas would kill 3 people a year;
- nuclear would kill one person every 14 years;
- wind would kill one person every 29 years;
- hydropower would kill one person every 42 years;
- solar would kill one person every 53 years.
Another way of looking at it is that nuclear energy, for instance, is responsible 99.8% fewer deaths than brown coal; 99.7% fewer than coal; 99.6% fewer than oil; and 97.5% fewer than gas. Wind, solar, and hydropower do even better.
So as you can see right off the bat, there’s a huge difference in how dangerous different types of energy are. Gas is not as bad as coal or oil, but it’s still nowhere near renewable energy. Which begs the question, how does energy kill people?
How energy kills people
Historically, coal mining has been the most dangerous energy-associated activity, and there’s a long list of coal mining disasters. Working in a mine is dangerous, and the threats include suffocation, gas poisoning, roof collapse, and gas explosions. In the US alone, over 100,000 coal miners have been killed in the past century, and though the number is decreasing (as coal production is also decreasing), it remains a dangerous activity. For instance, in 2005, coal accidents claimed 5,938 lives worldwide, and in 2006, accidents in China alone killed 4,746 people.
The safety culture of the oil and gas industries was also found lacking several times. According to the US CDC, in the past decade, the oil and gas had approximately 108 deaths per year, which comes to a yearly fatality rate of 1 in 4,000 employees.
Renewable sources like wind and solar are virtually never associated with dangerous accidents. Things are different for hydropower, though. At first glance, hydropower is even more dangerous than the oil and gas industry, but the data is heavily skewed by a single disaster: Typhoon Nina in 1975. The Typhoon washed out the Shimantan Dam (Henan Province, China), In August 1975, the Banqiao dam collapsed, creating one of the largest floods in history, inundating 30 cities and killing over 200,000 people.
However, even that is nothing compared to the indirect damage that fossil fuel energy does through pollution.
Pollution is a silent killer — we don’t really see it, and its effects can be hard to track in individual cases. However, the burning of fossil fuels (and especially coal) emits a number of hazardous air pollutants that are transported through the atmosphere. These pollutants can cause cardiovascular problems, respiratory problems, lung cancer, infections, and many, many more issues. The damage from this pollution dwarfs the numbers from accidents.
For instance, one recent analysis found that through pollution, the fossil fuel industry killed 8.7 million people in 2018 alone — more than the toll claimed by tobacco and malaria combined. That’s equivalent to saying that fossil fuel air pollution kills 1 in 5 people. A more conservative analysis found that fossil fuel combustion kills “only” a million people a year.
So by and large, pollution is the biggest killer in the room, and burning fossil fuels dwarfs all other accidents, which is even more concerning considering that despite the rise in renewables, fossil fuel consumption also continues to grow.
You may have noticed we haven’t mentioned nuclear energy much yet.
Remarkably, although technically not a renewable source, nuclear energy is surprisingly safe, on par with renewables, providing one of the safest and cleanest types of energy available.
Wait, I thought nuclear energy was dangerous?
A lot of people are afraid or at least uncomfortable with nuclear energy, and that’s understandable. The Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters still burn in people’s mind, and few words are as unnerving as “nuclear disaster.” However, let’s put things into perspective. The Chernobyl disaster, the worst nuclear disaster in human history, killed between 4,000 and 60,000 (the estimates differ). The Fukushima disaster claimed under 600 lives. These were both very severe events but compared to the magnitude of deaths caused by pollution, it’s almost negligible.
Nevertheless, despite being such a remarkably clean source of energy, nuclear energy has remained extremely controversial, being shunned for often more damaging sources of energy. Just 3% of Japanese say they want more nuclear energy, while the country gets 26% of its energy from coal and 40% from oil. Germany is shutting down its nuclear power, and despite notable renewable progress, much of the country’s energy still comes from polluting sources. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, around 70% of the energy produced in France is nuclear, and it shows.
Nuclear energy has saved lives overall. Nuclear energy instead of coal, for instance, saved over 2 million lives in the past few decades. Nevertheless, it will likely remain a controversial option in most parts of the world.
A clear path
There’s some hidden good news in here. The good news is that we’re not facing a trade-off — it’s not like we either have to choose the energy that’s best for the climate or best for saving human lives. The energy that’s best for the climate is also best for us. Furthermore, the main ‘villain’ also tops both lists: coal. Coal is responsible for a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gases, and it also infers the most severe health costs in terms of accidents and pollution. Oil, biomass, and gasare better than coal — but much worse than everything else, on all counts.
So if we want to save lives and reduce emissions and reduce pollution, the path is clear: we need to start renouncing fossil fuel energy, especially coal. The safest sources of energy are also the cleanest: renewable and nuclear.
But despite progress, there’s a very long way to go. Some 60% of the world’s energy comes from coal and oil; another 25% comes from gas. In fact, just 15% of the global energy production is low-carbon (either renewable or nuclear).
Things are changing, and the deployment of renewable energy continues at an accelerated pace. But in the meantime, we’ll continue paying a dear cost for our energy.