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Air pollution from fossil fuels kills 5 million people each year

A troubling study reveals startling statistics on the impact of air pollution caused by fossil fuels. The new research estimates that 5.1 million extra deaths occur annually worldwide due to this issue.

This figure represents a staggering 61% of the total 8.3 million deaths attributed to ambient air pollution from all sources in 2019. The study emphasizes the significant health benefits that could be realized by replacing fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy sources.

Estimating fossil fuel pollution deaths

While ambient air pollution is recognized as a major environmental threat to health and longevity, pinpointing deaths to specific sources of air pollution has been a complex task with varying outcomes in worldwide studies.

In response to this challenge, a team of international researchers devised a novel model. This model aimed to calculate both general and specific mortality rates linked to fossil fuel-related air pollution. Additionally, it evaluated the potential health advantages of adopting policies that transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy alternatives.

This team conducted their analysis by determining the surplus of deaths (the count exceeding the expected number in a specific timeframe). They employed the Global Burden of Disease 2019 study’s findings, data on fine particulate matter from NASA satellites, population statistics, and advanced simulations in atmospheric chemistry, aerosols, and risk factors for the year 2019. Their analysis encompassed four distinct scenarios.

In the initial scenario, they hypothesized a complete elimination of emissions from fossil fuels. The second and third scenarios considered reductions in exposure by 25% and 50%, respectively, as steps towards complete fossil fuel elimination. The final scenario envisaged the removal of all human-caused air pollution sources, leaving only natural elements like desert dust and wildfires as contributors.

What the researchers learned

The study revealed that in 2019, the global death toll linked to ambient air pollutants like fine particles and ozone amounted to 8.3 million, with fossil fuels responsible for 61% of these deaths (5.1 million). This number represents 82% of the total possible deaths from air pollution that could be avoided if all human-made emissions were controlled.

The most significant impact of ambient air pollution was observed in South and East Asia, especially in China, which experienced 2.44 million deaths annually, and India with 2.18 million. Over half of these deaths (52%) were associated with prevalent health issues, including ischemic heart disease (30%), stroke (16%), chronic obstructive lung disease (16%), and diabetes (6%).

Approximately 20% of the deaths could not be specifically categorized, but they are suspected to be partly related to conditions like high blood pressure and neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Elimination of fossil fuel pollution

Eradicating fossil fuels would lead to the most substantial decrease in deaths attributed to air pollution in South, South East, and East Asia, potentially preventing about 3.85 million deaths each year. This figure is equivalent to 80-85% of the deaths that could potentially be avoided from all human-made air pollution sources in these areas.

In wealthier nations, which largely rely on fossil fuels, about 460,000 deaths per year could be prevented by phasing out these energy sources. This number constitutes roughly 90% of the preventable deaths from all human-caused air pollution sources in these countries.

The researchers noted that their new model produced higher death estimates compared to previous studies. This increase is attributed to the inclusion of both general and disease-specific mortality and basing their estimates exclusively on studies of ambient air pollution.

COP28 and the Paris agreement

Despite some remaining uncertainties, the researchers emphasize that replacing fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy aligns with the Paris Climate Agreement’s 2050 climate neutrality goal, offering significant benefits for both public health and the environment.

The researchers acknowledge some uncertainties in their model but emphasize the significant public health benefits of replacing fossil fuels. The upcoming COP28 climate change negotiations in the United Arab Emirates are seen as a pivotal opportunity to advance the fossil fuel phase-out agenda.

Accompanying the study, an editorial by researchers from Finland and Norway highlights that preventing deaths is just one aspect of the issue. Improved air quality could also reduce the burden of several major diseases. They advocate for a just and equitable phase-out of fossil fuels, emphasizing the role of high-income countries in leading this transition.

In summary, as COP28 approaches, the call for an accelerated phase-out of fossil fuels is clear. The potential health benefits, alongside the positive impact on the climate, make this an urgent and necessary commitment for global leaders.

The full study was published in the BMJ.

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