Life expectancy is an important gauge of human well-being. It is an indicator of Sustainable Development Goal #3 to “ensure healthy lies and promote well-being for all at all ages,” and a key element of the Human Development Index. In ancient Greek and Roman times life expectancy at birth was likely limited to about 35 years of age.1 In 2022, the average life expectancy at birth was almost 72 years.2 The doubling of life expectancy represents a dramatic improvement in the overall human condition. But the equally dramatic disparity in life expectancy at birth—from 52 years in Chad to 85 years in Japan–reminds us of a massive gap in life opportunities.
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Energy services are connected to human health in multiple dimensions. Cold homes are associated with increased blood pressure, asthma symptoms, poor mental health, and excess winter mortality and morbidity.3 Excessively high indoor temperatures have a parallel set of negative health impacts. Refrigeration improves household nutrition and improves the delivery of vaccines and other essential health services. Enhanced mobility services increase access to food and health services.
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The animation reveals two important trends. The first is a notable increase in life expectancy since 1980 for dozens of nations in Africa, Asia, and South America that was accomplished with very modest increases in energy use per capita. The second trend is a much smaller increase in life expectancy in Europe and the United States that was accompanied with stable or decreasing energy use per capita in many countries.
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The relationship between life expectancy and per capita energy use mirrors the overall pattern of other indicators of well-being such as the Human Development Index and life satisfaction: low life expectancies are associated with low levels of per capita energy use. At low levels of energy use, very modest increases help drive significant increases in life expectancy. But after about 40 to 50 GJ per capita, additional increases in energy use per capita are associated with smaller and smaller increases in life expectancy. At high levels of energy use per capita there is little connection with longevity. To see this, compare the huge range of energy use for countries with life expectancies above 75 years. Per capita energy use in Costa Rica is 16 times lower than in Qatar, but life expectancy in both countries is 80 years.
The major takeaways here are clear. Deprivation of basic energy services is associated with a shorter lifespan. Modest increases in lighting, mobility, heating and cooling, etc. can help produce substantial improvements in longevity. At the other end of the spectrum, energy-intensive lifestyles do not confer health benefits as measured by longer lives. Indeed, the data suggest that many countries can substantially reduce their energy use while maintaining high life expectancy.
1 Beltrán-Sáncheza H, Crimmins E, Finch C. Early cohort mortality predicts the rate of aging in the cohort: a historical analysis. J Dev Orig Health Dis. 2012;3(5):380–386. doi:10.1017/S2040174412000281
2 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2022). World Population Prospects 2022,
3 WHO Housing and Health Guidelines. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2018. 4, Low indoor temperatures and insulation. Available from: Link