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New study: high energy use & economic growth unnecessary for better quality of life

Researchers found that implementing 8 actions would have a better effect on quality of life than increasing GDP or energy consumption.

Last month, researchers in Germany, Switzerland, and the UK published a study in the journal Global Environmental Change, which explored the connection between energy use and human need satisfaction.

According to the researchers, global society has a dilemma. If we are to limit global warming to just 1.5° C, we must rapidly decarbonize global energy systems and deeply reduce global energy use. On the other hand, there are still billions of people who lack basic needs, and the current methods for meeting those needs requires unsustainable levels of resource use.

As a result, the researchers aimed to assess not only how energy use and human need satisfaction are related but also how that relationship varies depending on socioeconomic factors.

The researchers analyzed energy use data for 106 countries, comparing it to the following 6 dimensions of human need satisfaction dimensions for each country:

  • Healthy life expectancy
  • Minimum income
  • Sufficient nourishment
  • Basic education
  • Access to safe sanitation
  • Access to drinking water

These 106 countries account for 90% of the world’s population, 89% of global “total final energy use”, and 92% of global gross domestic product.

Of those countries, only 29 reached sufficient levels in all 6 of the above need satisfaction dimensions. The problem, however, is that each of these countries also used at least double that of 27 GJ per capita, which the researchers indicate as the maximum level of energy use that could be globally rendered sustainable. Some of the countries used 4 times that maximum level!

While it may be natural to assume that high energy use then must be necessary for meeting human needs satisfaction, the researchers caution us that it may not be that simple:

Whereas at low levels of energy use, need satisfaction steeply increases with energy use, need satisfaction improvements with additional energy use quickly diminish at moderate levels of energy use and virtually vanish at high levels of energy use.

Or as they summarize: “need satisfaction saturates with energy use”.

For example, only 30% of countries with energy use above 60 GJ per capita didn’t achieve sufficient need satisfaction, and 25% of those using over 80 GJ per capita didn’t.

In fact, the researchers report that a large spread in need satisfaction outcomes exists at low to moderate energy use levels, which can’t be explained by energy use alone.

Here, let me show you what I mean:

This is a set of charts from the study. As you can see, in all 6 of the need satisfaction dimensions, there’s a significant increase in need satisfaction as usage increases to 50 GJ per capita. After that point, however, the rate of increase in need satisfaction starts to mellow out and quickly flattens out to hardly any increase at all.

That is quite pronounced in drinking water access, sufficient nourishment, saf sanitation access and minimum income.

The green line in the graphs marks 27 GJ per capita, which I pointed out earlier is the maximum level of final energy use that can be globally rendered ecologically sustainable if we deeply transform global energy systems. The blue line is the threshold for sufficient need satisfaction.

That being said, when the researchers accounted for what they called “provisioning factors”, the relationship between energy use and needs satisfaction was moderated.

They split the provisioning factors into 3 categories: beneficial (public service quality, income equality, electricity access), detrimental (extractivis, economic growth), and non-significant.

They use life expectancy to illustrate how the provisioning factors are beneficial or detrimental.

For example, when public services was high quality, life expectancy outcomes were significantly higher and less dependent on energy use, compared to low or even median public service quality.

On the other hand, high levels of extractivism were connected to substantially lower life expectancy outcomes or the life expectancy was more dependant on energy use.

These provisioning factors showed the researchers that human need satisfaction is less dependent on energy use than previous research had shown—we’d been overestimating the importance of energy use.

In fact, they showed that high energy use along cannot meet human needs.

Not only that, but they found that:

Countries with beneficial provisioning configurations are likely to achieve higher need satisfaction at a given level of energy use, and could likely reach a particular level of need satisfaction with less energy use, compared to the international trend.

In other words, “the better a country’s provisioning configuration is, the better its socio-ecological performance tends to be.”

They expounded on this further by claiming that

For many countries where needs are currently not met, reaching sufficient need satisfaction without improvements in provisioning configurations would require very large increases in energy use. Much of this additional energy use could potentially be avoided if these countries significantly improved key provisioning factors in pursuit of sufficient need satisfaction.

Not only that, but the countries who have already achieved sufficient need satisfaction already have beneficial provisions, which means they could probably reduce energy use “without compromising sufficient need satisfaction”, especially if they improved their beneficial provisions configurations.

They go even further than that by warning that reducing energy use in affluent countries is crucial for both climate and social justice.

“A large share of the energy footprints of affluent countries appears to be unnecessary for need satisfaction”; however, those same countries “use up a substantial share of the dwindling global carbon budget which would be required for others to meet their basic needs”.

The new findings didn’t just challenge current paradigms on energy use and quality of life. They also challenged conventional perspectives on the connection between economic growth and quality of life.

The study found that at moderate and high levels of energy use, economic growth is actually connected to detrimental socioecological performance.

They even concluded that it’s ecologically necessary and socially desirable to abandon the pursuit of economic growth beyond moderate levels of affluence.

It seems to me, then, that we should be focusing less on making sure billionaires keep accumulating more wealth and making sure the working class can take care of their basic needs (or even beyond that).

On that note, the researchers found that “improving income equality is compatible with rapid climate mitigation, beneficial for social outcomes, and favourable or even required for reconciling human well-being with ecological sustainability”.

The researchers even went so far as to say that their analysis provides “a strong case for redistributive policies that establish both minimum and maximum income and/or consumption levels”.

For countries to meet needs satisfaction without having to rely on unsustainable energy usage, the researchers recommended the following 8 actions.

  • Provide high-quality public services
  • Strengthen democracy
  • Establish greater income equality
  • Ensure universal access to electricity and clean fuels
  • Improve trade and transport infrastructure
  • Increase public health coverage
  • Minimize extractive industries
  • Abandon economic growth beyond moderate levels of affluence

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By Kim Siever

I live in Lethbridge with my spouse and 4 of our 6 children. I’m a writer, focusing on political news, social issues, and the occasional poem. My politics are radically left.

I’m also dichotomally Mormon. And I’m a functional vegetarian: I have a blog post about that somewhere around here. My pronouns are he/him, and I’m queer.

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