How does poor health influence people’s energy use?

Do some groups of people might find it difficult to change their behaviour and save more energy due to their life circumstances such as poor health? Dr Milena Buchs discusses her findings from analysing Understanding Society data.

What we wanted to find out

The UK government has set itself the target to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050, compared to the level in 1990. While lots has already been done to achieve this by reducing fossil fuel energy use in the UK, the latest 2018 Committee on Climate Change report highlights that there is still a considerable gap, and that behaviour change needs to play an important role, too.

However, an important question is which groups of people might find it difficult to change their behaviour and save more energy due to their life circumstances? These groups would be at a disadvantage if climate change mitigation policies make energy more expensive.

In this study we were particularly interested in how people’s health might influence their ability to save energy. This had not been researched much before, and the answer was not clear:

  1. Is health an important factor, in addition to people’s age, income, and other circumstances?
  2. Do people in poor health use more energy in the home but travel less because they are less mobile than other people? If this “mobility hypothesis” was true, people in poor health would be at a disadvantage if electricity and gas prices or taxes rise.
  3. Or, since it is well-established that people in poor health also tend to be on low incomes, which again is associated with less home energy use and travel, do they use less in both areas?


Using Understanding Society data

For the analysis, we used the 2012 wave of the Understanding Society survey.

This is the largest longitudinal household survey in the UK which started in 1991 with the British Household Panel Survey.

We chose the 2012 wave because it covers a broad range of questions on people’s environmental attitudes and behaviours (which are repeated in every 4th wave), as well as questions on their self-reported health status. There is no other representative UK survey with a similar sample size which covers all of these questions.

The sample consisted of nearly 47,170 individuals in just over 25,800 households. We used some of the survey variables to estimate households’ actual energy use. For instance, we applied price data on gas and electricity to estimate kWh consumed, based on households’ gas and electricity expenditure.


What the data told us

We examined the relationship between people’s health and their energy use in two ways, first unconditionally, without controlling for other household or individual characteristics, and second conditionally, which takes these characteristics into account.

In the first step, we found that people in poor health use less energy in the home as well as when travelling, compared to people in good health. This would support the “income” hypothesis outlined above: since people in poor health also tend to be on lower incomes, they might try to save on gas, electricity and motor fuels, and not be able to afford as many train rides and flights as richer people.

However, once we control for income, age, presence of children, employment status and other characteristics, people in poor health use more electricity in the home than healthier people.

This means that if we took two households who both have the same income, average age, number of children, etc., the one in which household members rated their health lower uses more electricity. In all other areas, households in poorer health still use the same (gas) or less (travel) amount of energy. Thus there is some evidence for the “mobility” hypothesis, which means that people in poor health get out of the house less, and hence use more electricity than their counterparts, regardless of their other circumstances.

Not unsurprisingly, we also found, in both steps of the analysis, that people in poor health participate less than healthier people in environmentally friendly types of travel such as walking, cycling or public transport. A combination of limited physical mobility (especially for walking and cycling) and financial constraints (e.g. train travel which can be expensive on certain routes) are likely explanations.


Implications for policymakers

These findings have important policy implications.

Poor health puts people at a disadvantage in relation to saving electricity or using environmentally friendly means of travel compared to people in better health, at given income levels and other characteristics. For instance, they will be relatively more affected by rising electricity prices or taxes.

At the same time, people in poor health might have travel needs that they find difficult to satisfy due to financial and mobility constraints. To address this, public transport systems need to be made more accessible and affordable.

The good news is that people in poor health will tend to be relatively less affected by eco-taxes on motor fuels or flights than healthier people because they also make much less use of these high carbon modes of travel.

The flip side is that improving the populations’ health could not only increase engagement in low carbon modes of travel, but also their more environmentally damaging counterparts.

Therefore, accompanying measures are required to dis-incentivise car and air travel which would cut emissions while putting less of a burden on people in poor health.


This post is based on the Open Access paper Büchs, M. et al. (2018) Sick and stuck at home – how poor health increases electricity consumption and reduces opportunities for environmentally-friendly travel in the United Kingdom. Energy Research & Social Science 44, 250-259,

Understanding Society data is available from the UK Data Service.

Case study also available: Sick and stuck at home? Does living with health challenges influence people’s energy use?

Dr Milena Buchs is Associate Professor in Sustainability, Economics and Low Carbon Transitions at the University of Leeds. Much of her research focuses on ways in which people’s circumstances and attitudes influence their energy use and carbon emissions; the (often unequal) distribution of carbon emissions across different social groups and what this means for designing fair climate change mitigation policies. She has led several research projects funded by UK Research Councils in this area, and published results in journals such as Ecological Economics, Global Environmental Change, Energy Policy, and Energy Research & Social Science.

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