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Why Divest? The Substantial Harm of Fossil Fuels

Cutler Cleveland's picture
Boston University
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  • Mar 12, 2015

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fossil fuel divestment and harm

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.

Photo Credit: Fossil Fuel Risk and Divestment/shutterstock



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Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Mar 13, 2015

Your basic question, “Should we cut back use of fossil fuels,” is the wrong question. First we should ask, “is there an acceptable lifestyle that does not require so much fossil fuel?” Since it only requires looking back a little over 100 years before the great fossil fuel pig out, I think we can learn a lot from the past.

For example, today I got several people angry at me by asking how to build a garden cart. The light weight, large wheel wooden cart was once an essential tool. Many can still be found as antiques for decorative effect. Even into the 1980s updated bicycle wheel cart versions were popular for “back to the land” hippies, interested in learning peasant farming methods.

The Amish farmers in our area are a little too primitive, IMHO. But seeing their buggies pass a sales lot full of multi-ton motorized machines leaves a lot of in-between opportunity for innovation.

Our lifestyle and fossil fuel consumption are one and the same. We can’t just change one. We can change them both. And I think a lot of people would be happier if we did.

On a side note, I have doubts about battery cars, but really like battery garden tools. New lifestyle innovation is very possible.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Mar 13, 2015

What principles should a University use to make a decision regarding divestment from fossil fuels?

I suppose another principle is that the University should find an asset class delivering the same services that fossil fuels deliver.

It’s all well and good to ‘divest from fossil fuels’, and I suppose it can grant some superficial feelings of ‘doing the right thing’, but society requires energy, and fossil fuel energy is cheap, so merely divesting from fossil fuels is not going to change anything.

If the university does not re-invest its capital in another energy source which can compete with fossil fuels for market share, then the only effect of ‘divestment’ will be that some other party becomes the owner of the fossil fuel assets. It will do nothing to reduce fossil fuel market share.

In the worst case, the new owner of the assets will care less about the environment than the University, and hence do less (as a shareholder) to pressure the fossil fuel asset managers to do everything they can to reduce the environmental impact of the fossil fuel industry.

In my opinion, the best ‘divestment’ strategy for a Iniversity (if it decides it does not want to remain a shareholder in the fossil fuel industry) is to move its capital from the fossil fuel industry to the nuclear industry. In addition, the University should become active in the nuclear debate. We need academics to come forward and bring the independent voice of reason to this debate. Without nuclear power, the battle against climate change is as good as lost.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Mar 13, 2015

It just might be easier to figure how to obtain the clean energy for this lifestyle than to abandon this lifestyle without new “cities”. Eventually, YES!, we’ll need to live in cities that eliminate the long distances and all the waste. Passive solar design and locally grown food would help a lot, however, we’ll still need lots of energy for water, excess CO2 removal, parts and battery fabrication (at home?) and for entertainment. We might not even need roads full of potholes and drunk drivers in the future.

Hence the reason we might as well learn how to power the present with clean energy in the meantime.

Jeffrey Miller's picture
Jeffrey Miller on Mar 13, 2015

“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.”

You offer a long list of harms caused by fossil fuels. Do you think there are any benefits? Like that they have allowed a significant fraction of the world’s population – including you, me, and anyone reading this forum – to live lives of unimaginable opulence compared to people living before the age of fossil fuels? 

You show an interest in the poor. Do you think the many poor in Africa and India who don’t have fossil fuels are better off for that? Do you think they think that? Or do you think the opposite is true – that these people would be far, far better off if they had access to the same fuels that you and I use to jet round the world, heat our houses, power our hospitals, our universities, our industries, our agriculture, our electronics? 

Finally, what is your argument for divestment? I see none. As Joris notes, selling shares in fossil fuel companies will certainly not make things better and could in fact things worse as the new shareholders may be even less concerned about environmental responsibility.  

Talk of divestment strikes me as exactly analogous to discussions over the Keystone pipeline. Very long on symbolism, very short on doing anything that would actually address our huge carbon problem. It seems to me that abandoning these symbolic battles and fighting for something that would actually do some good – like for example a carbon tax or carbon fee + dividend – would be far more productive. 



Cutler Cleveland's picture
Cutler Cleveland on Mar 13, 2015

This part of a much larger argement that inlcudes a very detailed argument for divestment:

Working on divestment does not preculde one from simultaneously working on other fronts as well such as carbon taxes.

Substantial harm alone is reason enough for a university to divest. It does not have to pass a B/C test.



Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 13, 2015

“… fossil energy system causes pervasive human health, environmental, and social harm…”

It’s worth noting that switching to energy from biomass burning results in essentially no reduction in harm to human health (due to equally bad air pollution), a much greater impact on the environment (since use of bio-energy requires much more land than any other energy source, and habitat distruction is the main problem for wildlife), and no reduction in social harm (since bio-energy competes for food production and other land uses).

Furthermore, it’s worth saying that sustainable energy systems which promise a reduction of 20-40% in fossil fuel use (e.g. variable renewables) are not adequate solutions to the fossil fuel problem.  Some Universities have tried to appear green by buying renewable energy certificates for 100% of their electricity use; however, I know of none which has installed energy storage or demand-response systems tied to clean-energy supply; so in actuality, they are still 100% dependent on fossil fuel for “electricity supply/demand balancing”, which is the secret ingredient that makes electricity so useful.

In fact, the only energy system which has ever displaced over 90% of fossil fuel use in a modern electricity grid is a combination of big-hydro and nuclear power, as demonstrated in France, Sweden, and Switzerland.  

The best thing that universities can do about the fossil fuel problem is loudly proclaim the truth about nuclear power, i.e. it is a viable, safe, and scalable fossil fuel replacement which has been rejected by the modern environmental movement based on beliefs about it which are fundementally wrong.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Mar 14, 2015

It just might be easier to figure how to obtain the clean energy for this lifestyle than to abandon this lifestyle without new “cities”.

This.  A city is a massive investment in energy, materials and people’s established ways of living.  It’s going to be much easier and quicker to re-power cities than to rebuild everything from scratch.

I did some number-crunching and found that the waste heat of a NuScale unit (110 MW, give or take) is equivalent to 8.8 million cubic feet per day of natural gas.  If we are willing to pronounce such units safe enough to locate inside cities (and with integral containments able to self-cool by a host of means more or less indefinitely, why not?), that heat could replace natural gas for space heat and DHW.  With electricity, space heat and DHW taken care of (and probably some A/C as well, using absorption chillers), the only remaining uses for fossil fuels would be industrial process heat and transportation.

If we cranked out 2 NuScale units per day 250 days a year, one year’s production would produce heat equivalent to 1.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year.  The USA consumes just 26 tcf per year for all purposes, so it wouldn’t be too many years before such an effort put a serious dent in NG consumption and all related emissions.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Mar 14, 2015

One problem with proposals that attempt to attach a blanket stigma to all  fossil fuels is the blindness created to solutions which, in the very near term, can do the most to reduce CO2 emissions.  In particular, the switch from coal to gas fired electric generation is highly effective in short time periods in reducing emissions. This is not a conclusion from a model, or other forecast, but based on the evidence from the US in the last several years. 

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Mar 15, 2015

This part of a much larger argement that inlcudes a very detailed argument for divestment:

Your report contains a section on gas as a bridge fuel.  After an acknowledgement that gas has far lower carbon intensity that coal comes this passage:

“… Secretary of Energy Moniz described natural gas as a “bridge to a very low carbon future…it affords us a little bit more time to develop the technologies, to lower the costs of the alternative technologies, to get the market penetration of these new technologies” (Moniz, 2013)…. The implicit assumption in this argument is that natural gas has a better carbon footprint compared to coal, which it certainly does, so displacing coal with gas must be the right move. But the goal is to reduce total carbon emissions from the energy system, not the intensity of its constituent parts. Focusing on the latter instead of the former is like trying to fall more slowly off a cliff, or hoping for partial pregnancy. The atmosphere is overloaded with carbon, and simply slowing continuous overloading is insufficient. Furthermore, the competitive impact of natural gas on renewables inhibits their growth.”

The flaw in the response to the like of Moniz is a failure to acknowledge the importance of rate versus some absolute value at a moment in time. Reducing intensity is not an independent alternative to eliminating carbon emissions, it is instead an approach to eliminating carbon emissions; clearly a switch to gas had reduced carbon emissions in the US, and in a short period of time.   Then come the analogies:  cliffs and pregnancies. These  are emotional appeals, with an aprocraphal, religous tone, and which smack of attempt to stop further argument.   Cliffs and pregnancies are exactly the wrong assessment: that the current condition is caused by a single event, the solution is a binary choice.  A better analogy is found in the common medical approach of triage where time is also a factor and immidiate cures are seldom at hand: first get the blood pressure up, or slow down a racing matabolism.  In time, a more considered and effective cure becomes available. 

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