Why Divest? The Substantial Harm of Fossil Fuels

What principles should a University use to make a decision regarding divestment from fossil fuels?  One principle is the existence and degree of harm caused by the use of fossil fuels.  As stated by Robert Knox, chair of the Board of Trustees of Boston University, circumstances exist to consider divestment only when “the degree of social harm caused by the actions of the firms in the asset class is clearly unacceptable.”1

A prodigious body of evidence indicates that the fossil energy system causes pervasive human health, environmental, and social harm across every society, and that these costs will grow in the absence of explicit measures to address them.

The combustion of fossil fuels releases the majority of greenhouse gases, the principal driver of  climate change.  Atmospheric releases from fossil fuel energy-systems comprise about 87 percent of global anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions since 1751 (Boden et al., 2013; Houghton et al., 2012), and 17 percent of global anthropogenic methane emissions since 1860 (Stern and Kaufmann, 1996).  Fossil energy combustion also releases significant quantities of nitrous oxide, another potent GHG; in the United States, about 19 percent of such emissions are from energy use (EIA, 2011). The largest source of nitrous oxide, fertilizer use in agriculture, is also directly linked to energy because ammonia synthesis relies on methane as a feedstock.

The first estimates of the economic damage of climate change made in the 1990s placed the cost in the range of a couple of percentage points of GDP (Tol, 2009). Two percent of world GDP today is about $1.2 trillion.  Some of the more recent estimates place the cost as high as 8 percent of GDP (UNEP, 2010). The damage cost of climate change is expected to increase by about 2 percent per year (Anthoff et al., 2011).  The World Health Organization (2014)  estimates that an additional 250,000 people will die annually between 2030 and 2050 from conditions caused or worsened by climate change.

Continued abundance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will increase the risk of severe, pervasive, and in some cases irreversible detrimental impacts (IPCC, 2014a).  Climate change is projected to undermine food security; reduce renewable surface water and groundwater resources in most dry subtropical regions, intensifying competition for water among sectors; impair human health especially in poor developing countries; retard economic growth, making poverty reduction more difficult; and increase the displacement of peoples. In urban areas climate change is expected to increase risks for people, assets, economies and ecosystems, including risks from heat stress, storms and extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, drought, water scarcity, sea-level rise, and storm surges.

Fossil fuel combustion is also a principal source of toxic air pollutants, including the precursors of tropospheric ozone (carbon monoxide (CO), non-methane volatile organic compound (NMVOC), oxides of nitrogen (NOx)), acidifying substances (NOx, ammonia (NH3), sulfur dioxide (SO2)), particulate matter (PM), and heavy metals such as mercury, selenium, chromium, nickel, cadmium, and arsenic. About 84 percent of global anthropogenic sulfur emissions since 1850 resulted from fossil fuel combustion (Smith et al., 2011). Since 1970 in the United States, about 80 percent of CO emissions and 94 percent of NOx emissions are from stationary fuel combustion and transportation (APA, 2013). About 50 percent of anthropogenic mercury emissions in the United States are from coal-fired power plants (EPA, 2015a).

These emissions drive a range of global and regional human health and environmental impacts. Despite great progress in air quality improvement, about 75 million people in the U.S. lived in counties with pollution levels above the  National Ambient Air Quality Standards in 2013 (EPA, 2015b).  This exposure has a significant impacts on health and on the costs of health care.  Each increase in fine particulate matter is associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality of 14 percent, and with 26 and 37 percent increases in cardiovascular and lung-cancer mortality, respectively (Lepeule et al., 2912). Long-term exposure to fine particulate matter in the United States produces an approximate loss of 0.7 to 1.6 years of life expectancy (Pope et al., 2009). Exposure to combustion byproducts in the U.S. accounts for about 200,000 premature deaths per year due to changes in the concentrations of fine particulate matter, and about 10,000 deaths due to changes in ozone concentrations (Caiazzo et al., 2013).

About 90 percent of city dwellers in Europe are exposed to pollutants at concentrations higher than the air quality levels deemed harmful to health. In the EU, PM pollution was associated with about 348,000 premature deaths in 2000, corresponding to a loss of about 3.7 million years of life (AEA, 2005),  Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is estimated to reduce life expectancy in the EU by more than eight months (EEA, 2014).  The economic costs of the health impacts from just coal combustion in the EU are estimated at up to €42.8 billion per year (HEAL, 2013).

In China, outdoor air pollution causes 1.2 million premature deaths and 25 million healthy years of life lost in 2010 (HEI, 2013). Air pollution has caused the population in northern China to lose more than 2.5 billion life years of life expectancy, and the average person to lose about 5 years of life expectancy (Chen et al., 2013).  The health care costs associated with air pollution in China amount to 4 to 9 percent of its GDP (Matus, et al., 2011, World Bank, 2007).

In India, 660 million people, over half of India’s population, live in areas that exceed the nation’s air quality standards for fine particulate pollution. Bringing air quality in line with those standards would increase life expectancies from 1.1 to 5.7 years, or 0.73 to 3.76 billion life years in total (Greenstone et al., 2015).

Looking beyond air pollution, the fossil fuel energy system has pervasive impacts on land and water resources, including acid deposition (acid rain), acid mine drainage, oil spills, unreclaimed land disturbed by coal mines, and the release of toxic materials from extraction, processing and combustion.  Some of the United States’ epic environmental disasters—the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, wetland loss in coastal Louisiana, the Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill—are directly connected to the fossil fuel energy system. The nation’s list of Superfund sites is a Who’s Who of petrochemical facilities.

The environmental costs of fossil fuels will grow with the accelerating use of lower quality unconventional sources, and to the rising impacts of climate change. As the case of liquid fuels illustrates, lower quality and unconventional resources generally have great environmental impacts that conventional sources. Canadian oil sands crudes are more GHG emission-intensive than other crudes they may displace in United States refineries, and release about 15 to 20 percent more GHGs on a complete life-cycle basis (“well-to-wheels”) than the average barrel of crude oil refined in the United States (Brandt, 2011; Lattanzio, 2014). Liquid hydrocarbon fuels derived from oil shale have 20 to 75 percent greater fuel cycle GHG emissions compared to fuels produced from conventional oil (Mulchandan and Brandt, 2011). Coal-to liquids release 128 percent more GHGs on a well-to-wheels basis compared to gasoline produced from conventional crude oil (Bartis et al., 2008). The greater environmental impact of lower quality and unconventional sources energy extends to the demand for water. On a wells-wheels basis, oil sands syncrude and shale oil use 3 to 4 times the water compared to the primary recovery of conventional crude oil (Schornagel, et al., 2012).

The fossil fuel energy system also poses significant risk to the health and safety of its workers, and to the communities where the energy infrastructure exists, from spills, explosions, leaks, crashes, and other forms of accidents. From 1970 to 2008 there were 3,213 serious accidents (>5 fatalities) in the world in the coal, oil and natural gas industries that killed 66,756 people (Burgherr, et al., 2014). Accidents and disasters in the fossil fuel energy system accounted for about 35 percent of all energy-related property damage in the 20th century (Sovacool, 2008).

The magnitude of the cost of the fossil energy system is compounded by its inequitable distribution. The health and economic impacts of the United States’ energy system are lopsidedly felt by low-income households (Maxwell, 2004; Truong, 2014). There also is widespread consensus that the poor are most vulnerable to climate change (IPCC, 2014b). Vulnerability ranges from the cost and availability of food (Nelson et al., 2013), mortality and morbidity (Hales et al., 2014), the direct reduction of economic growth by higher temperatures (Dell et al., 2102), and displacement by sea level rise (Dasgupta et al., 2009).

The dependence on oil leads directly to violent conflict.  In the name of national security, the U.S. military has frequently been used in the past 60 years to guarantee access to foreign sources of oil and to protect key suppliers such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait from internal revolt and external attack (Klare, 2004).  Oil revenue channeled through charities, schools, and private donors in some Middle East nations helped create and sustain both Al-Qaeda (and its affiliates from Indonesia to Chechnya) and the Taliban (Yetiv, 2011).  ISIS funds a significant portion of its activities from oil produced in Iraq and Syria that it sells on the black market (Shelly, 2014). Protest against the Nigerian government’s and Shell’s environmental and human rights behavior in the Ogoniland region of Nigeria was meet with a brutal suppression that killed at least 2,000 people (Geddicks, 2001). Shell’s behavior in Ogoniland was divisive to the extent that the company was stripped of its “social license to operate”—the local population no longer tolerated its presence (Ruggie, 2013). The recent discovery of oil in northern Kenya has fueled violent conflict among the Turkana people, a marginalized pastoralist group, and other ethic and religious groups in Kenya, South Sudan, and Ethiopia (Joahnnes, et al., 2014). These examples, along with many others—attacks on oil infrastructure in Iraq, disputes over natural gas pipelines between Russia the Ukraine, and turmoil over the distribution of rents form natural gas extraction in Bolivia—illustrate the persistent nature of conflict rooted in our dependence on fossil fuels.

The evidence clearly leads to three conclusions.  First, the fossil energy system causes widespread harm to the health of people, economies, and ecosystems.  Second, these costs will grow with a shift to unconventional sources of oil and gas, and with continued climate change. Third, the poor disproportionally bear the economic,environmental, and social costs associated with the fossil energy system.



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